South Africa: We warned government about total railway collapse 20 years ago — but they did nothing

The South African government was warned about the potential collapse of the country’s railway system two decades ago but did not implement measures to prevent it, former Transnet executive Tau Morwe has told BizNews.

Morwe was speaking on the back of a report from experienced rail journalist David Williams, which revealed the shocking state of South Africa’s railway system.

According to Williams’ analysis, around two-thirds of above-ground electrical cables on the 3,000km network of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) has been stolen or vandalised.

Williams said that at such high levels of damage, much of the remaining system also became useless. Engineers told him that restoring this infrastructure into working condition would cost about half a million rand per kilometre.

Transnet’s cargo railway industry is facing similar problems.

Morwe said that between 2019 and 2020, 354,227 metres of overhead cable was stolen from Transnet Freight Rail.

Despite this, he claimed there were minimal to no consequences for the perpetrators.

Morwe told Biznews that the issues highlighted by Williams were nothing new, and that Transnet had previously called on the government to address them.

“Some 20 years back, Transnet — via Spoornet back then — went to Parliament and asked that the Railway Police be brought back, that has never happened,” Morwe said.

The South African Police’s 16,000-plus strong Railway Police unit was dissolved into the broader force in 1986 as violence in the country surged in the lead-up to the dismantling of Apartheid.

This dedicated unit was very effective at securing South Africa’s railway system.

Cabinet approved a dedicated police unit for railways under the SAPS Protection and Security Services Division on 11 June 2003.

In a 2016 presentation to Parliament, Lieutenant General Michael Motlhala (then Major General) explained that railway policing was reintroduced and established during 2004.

However, a restructuring process in the SAPS was approved on 8 December 2010, and, subsequently, Railway Police—including the National Mobile Train Unit—were moved to the Visible Policing Division. A Gautrain Unit was established in 2012.

The reformed division remains diminished from the 16,500-strong force of the Railway Police in the 1980s.

Morwe said he could not pinpoint why the government had not brought back the Railway Police as it was, even after numerous flagged incidents of serious damage to Transnet’s infrastructure.

“I recall around 2009 and 2010, I was acting chief executive at Transnet Freight Rail, and a number of trains — trains full of diesel — were derailed,” Morwe said.

“That was done on purpose. A train full of some hazardous chemicals derailed. Again, that was on purpose.”

At the time, Morwe contacted the security establishment and showed them pictures of these incidents.

“Up until today, nothing has happened. One does not want to say, look, it is related to what is happening in the country today, but I think the politicians ought to deal with this question,” Morwe said.

“In any other country if people are found carrying blowtorches and cutting rail, there would be some serious consequences.”

Railway tracks cut – Cut rail tracks that were stolen

Morwe pointed out that rail’s market share of freight transport in South Africa had declined significantly since it was around 30% in 2009.

“The estimate currently is that it is at 21% or less, and yet from a Parliamentary or political perspective, there doesn’t seem to be any action,” he stated.

Aside from the security issues, he said railway authorities were using ageing stock and outdated technologies.

In addition, the inefficient use of land in South Africa had resulted in settlements encroaching on railways, making the infrastructure easier to access for vandals.

He also emphasised that separating mainline passenger services from cargo was a mistake.

“My personal opinion is that in a single country, once you change rail infrastructure and start splitting it up, you are inviting problems,” he said.

“Let’s look at what’s happening in Germany, for instance. There, you’ve got a state-run entity, running both the infrastructure and operations.”

“Now the question we can ask is, should an entity like Metro Rail be running infrastructure or should they be running trains? From a policy point of view, we have to look at the government. We do not have the rail policy on the table. It goes back to the policy-makers.”


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