Vandalism, COVID-19 derailing struggling Prasa's efforts to get back on its feet

Already beset by cash flow problems, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) is running a limited service, which is not nearly enough to help recover the billions lost over the lockdown period.

The Cleveland train station in Johannesburg has been vandalised and stripped of its infrastructure during lockdown. Picture: Edwin Ntshidi/EWN

JOHANNESBURG - With no clear timelines about when trains will run at full capacity again, commuters will continue to bear the brunt of the delays while a solution is sought.

Already beset by cash flow problems, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) is running a limited service, which is not nearly enough to help recover the billions lost over the lockdown period.

Prasa’s woes have been exacerbated by rampant vandalism of infrastructure, particularly in Gauteng.

Shabane Maluleke was already battling to stretch his meagre wages of R700 a week before COVID-19 brought train services to an abrupt halt in March.

The father of two travels between Industria and Krugersdorp every day and before the lockdown was imposed, he spent R48 on a weekly ticket.

Now, half his salary is allocated just to cover transport costs.

Maluleke is one of thousands of train commuters who’ve had to turn elsewhere to get around, impacting their livelihoods.

"I get that money on Friday. Before next week Friday, I don’t have anything. All the money is finished because this money is small money from using taxis. I don’t see any change."

As far as finances go, Prasa is in no better position.

The rail agency now has to contend with billions of rand in damages to its infrastructure as most of its stations are not guarded after security contracts were terminated earlier this year.

The extensive vandalism on the network, especially in Gauteng, ranges from stolen overhead electric lines and tracks to damaged coaches.

As spokesperson Makhosini Mgitywa explained this week, a few corridors have been opened on which rented diesel locomotives are operating. That’s because overhead electric lines have either been stolen or destroyed.

"We’re looking at adding more lines into operation and that is going to happen in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, I don’t think it would be prudent for me to say which lines we’re going to be reopening because history has taught us, at least recent history, that when we talk about those lines that we want to reopen, those lines come under severe attack."


But given the scale of the damages, plus commuter demands and financial hardships, there are questions about how it will increase capacity.

Ivan Basson is a concerned citizen who has seen first-hand how valuable infrastructure has been tampered with during the lockdown, particularly on the eastern corridor in Gauteng.

He took Eyewitness News on a tour of a few sites.

"Now if you look at these overhead lines, they’re missing, they disappeared. In January, all these lines were still here. We sent photos of people cutting the copper wire in January. We tried to get hold of Prasa to tell them what’s happening. One of the guys, he’s busy cutting the cables, stealing the copper, when somebody tells him 'hey, don’t do this'. He says: 'Mind your own business, this is my business'. How do you like that?"

Basson was relentless. But his efforts came to nought.

"So now who do you go to? Up the road here, there’s a police station. I went and spoke to the colonel. I said there’s guys busy stealing the stuff right here, right now. They said they’re going to send somebody. Look at that: it’s gone, everything is gone."

Prasa’s Mgitywa admitted that widespread vandalism was setting them back.

He also spoke about what he called "economic sabotage" while assuring that operations would be back on track soon.

"We are moving away from the worst situation that we found ourselves in. This talks to years of malfeasance that consumed Prasa. Vandalism has been taking place, this economic sabotage has been taking place over years."

There are doubts that Prasa will be able to handle passenger loads if the country moves to stage 1 of the lockdown as it scrambles to fix the railway mess.

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