South Africa’s passenger railway system is on the brink of total collapse, brought to its knees by thieves and vandals who have gutted many of its stations and railway tracks into a post-apocalyptic-like state.
Rail journalist David Williams previously detailed the worrying condition of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa’s (Prasa’s) network in a report for the Brenthurst Foundation.
Williams found that around two-thirds of the above-ground electrical cable network of 3,000km had been stolen or damaged.
In Gauteng, 89% of the Prasa’s network was out of order, while about 70% of KwaZulu-Natal’s railways were dysfunctional.
The situation was slightly better in the Western Cape, with 30% of the network inoperational.
According to engineers who consulted with Williams on the damage, it could cost around R500,000 to fix every kilometre of the damaged network.
Williams holds that the disbanding of the dedicated railway police unit by the Apartheid government in the late 1980s was one of the first contributors to the decline.
The incumbent government’s decision to split passenger and freight rail in the early 2000s also created significant problems.
Despite sharing rail infrastructure and equipment, the entities that oversee each division — Prasa and Transnet — don’t communicate sufficiently, Williams stated.
Both entities have been struggling to deal with thieves stealing cables and tracks.
In November 2021, Transnet Freight Rail said that 1,000km of cables on its network had been stolen in 2021 alone.
Criminals even go so far as to steal railway tracks to sell as scrap metal.
eNCA reporter Nickolaus Bauer previously highlighted a 3km stretch of railway track on the Germiston–Springs line that criminals plundered.
The sheer destruction of railway infrastructure is clearly shown in the work of David Edwards, who travelled to numerous passenger train stations over the past three years to document their state.
Edwards had previously been to many of the stations on the Springs to Randfontein line as a student in the 1970s.
His images paint a visceral, grim picture of the reality on the ground, with stations stripped bare of their roofs and even tiling, gaps in concrete where cables used to run, and rubbish from vagrants piling up in hollowed-out buildings and subways.
He believes most of the damage was sustained during the early days of the Covid-19 lockdown, when there was a lack of security at the stations.
“In the absence of passengers and the vexation of disputed security contracts, overhead cable theft was the first casualty, followed by corrugated roofing, doors, windows and ablution fittings,” he explains.
“Later, cables were chiselled out of the walls and on less-used lines even the rails were removed.”
He also said many of the recently repainted buildings had already been looted again.
“It is surprising how fast the de-industrialisation of our infrastructure proceeded.”
The image below shows one of the buildings at Angelo Station in Ekurhuleni.
Edwards will exhibit his collection of photos from the railway stations at the P72 Project Space in Parkview, Johannesburg, between 12 and 24 February 2022.
To fund the exhibition, he has created a Backabuddy page with a target of raising R80,000.
“I believe it is important that people should reflect on our basic needs and see these images, lest we take refuge in notions of a fourth industrial revolution, while we are dismantling the first and the second,” Edwards said.
Below are some of the photos he shared with MyBroadband, showing the devastation of Prasa’s network.