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South Africa’s long-distance trains suspended – 1 month after relaunch

Services on the Passenger Rail Agency’s (Prasa) Shosholoza Meyl have been suspended, one month after the long-distance train was relaunched following a two-year hiatus.

A Joburg resident recently complained that he attempted to book a compartment on the train for February but was informed by Prasa that the service was suspended due to a lack of locomotives and that it would only resume once the locomotives had been replaced.

This comes despite the agency announcing in December that it had “received additional locomotives from Transnet to address the impact of unreliable old locomotives that disrupt some of the trips on the recently reintroduced Mainline Passenger Services (MLPS).”

“Service” is a big word

In a CapeTalk interview, railway expert David Williams said that the MLPS was not resumed in full; rather there was one train per week running between Joburg and Cape Town, and Joburg and Durban, respectively.

“The answer [to whether South Africa has a long-distance train service] is it does not,” said Williams.

“In fact, service is a very big word for what they did, what they did was they ran one train per week from Johannesburg to Cape Town and to Durban, and in both cases, there were big problems along the way.”

For example, the train from Joburg to Durban took 30 hours to complete the route, twice the estimated time of 15 hours, as there were “complications” on the line, according to Prasa.

Additionally, the first Cape Town trip ended at Wellington 70km short of its final destination due to stolen overhead cables, and the second Cape Town trip ended at De Aar due to a shortage of locomotives. In both instances, the journey was completed by bus.

Many of these issues stem from the fact that Prasa and Transnet share unequal ownership of the country’s rail network and report to different government departments – Prasa to the Department of Transport and Transnet to the Department of Public Enterprises – creating a perfect formula for bureaucracy and miscommunication.

Furthermore, most of the rail infrastructure in the country is maintained by Transnet, meaning Prasa has little control or oversight of the tracks it must use.

Prasa also does not have enough locomotives to support the MLPS by itself so it must source them from the freight rail entity – a process that has been anything but smooth.

“What’s not clear is why [Transnet] couldn’t provide one locomotive, or two locomotives, for the train that was held up at De Aar,” said Williams.

“Is Transnet Freight Rail not running any trains to Cape Town at the moment?”

Big question marks are therefore hanging over the supposed “relaunch” of the Shosholoza Meyl and what the real reason was behind it, given that it was clearly not ready for public service.

“I think there has been a lot of pretending by the government, they don’t realise how much has to be made up to restore [the MLPS] as there are big issues,” said Williams.

“We are a very long way to restoring this long-distance service between cities.”

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