The Future Backbone of Public Transport

Mobility and Rail Transport in South Africa

As mentioned in a previous blog post, South African cities leave much to be desired. No where else is this more relevant than in the transport infrastructure that makes up our daily lives.

In fact, if one ever feels the urge to inspect the various statistics describing our daily commutes, the inclination to set all civilization alight in a fit of rage is quite strong. Quite strong indeed.

The way we move around our cities is a defining factor in how we live our lives. It’s why cities as daunting as New York or Tokyo seem less like a challenge towards your ability to understand geography, and more about getting joyfully lost in the maze of their train systems.

It should be of utmost importance to governing bodies to focus on developing public transport systems that increase our mobility, whether it be by bus or rail. And it’s only pertinent that we speak about rail, because that is where some of the biggest issues are.

To those not in the know, South Africa has a pretty comprehensive rail system in comparison with its African compatriots. Almost entirely state owned, our network consists of rail routes that cover most of our economic nodes, and provide transport to hundreds of thousands of South African workers everyday.

The issue comes in when we begin to discuss the manner in which this service is provided, and the supposed implications

Inequality of Movement


It seems that there is nothing that can be discussed in South Africa without the shadow of  Apartheid looming over it. And thus, it has come time to discuss yet another way in which Apartheid brought nuance to oppression.

Previously I discussed the spacial planning of South African cities and how Apartheid town planning policy solidified a splintered existence for black and white (now rich and poor). How this translates to the daily lives of lower income workers is the debilitating distance from work to home, and the slow and unreliable transits that make up the journey.

It has become commonplace for many workers in South African cities to have their daily journeys to work be nothing but uncomfortable, unreliable, and strenuous. This is not to say there hasn’t been progress in bridging the gaps between wealthy previously white areas, and poor previously black areas; but a construct so solidified into the very nature of how South African cities function doesn’t disappear overnight. No matter how many times you may feel as if sitting in rush hour traffic is a hassle, ask your employee how they got to work.

This is why rail becomes such an important tool in South African development. As a transport mode that is mainly described by its ability to cross long distances, passenger and freight rail systems are star players on the field in the fight against inequality. In this article I will focus mainly on passenger rail though, as it is descriptive of South African realities. And its just sexier.

The first problem with the South African rail system though is one that is pretty obvious to anyone whose ever taken a metro rail in any of our major cities, its old. Very old. In fact, our system of trains and routes requires such extensive maintenance to remain operational, that its mostly to blame for the inconsistencies in performance.

New Trains


“So why doesn’t government just buy more trains and upgrade the system?! Or are they too busy building Nkandla?!”

Angry Citizen #1


Why, thank you for that question, angry citizen. Like having an old pair of shoes that make every stroll in the park excruciatingly uncomfortable, the logical  step (excuse the pun) would be to simply buy new shoes.

But you see you can’t just buy new public transport infrastructure at your nearest sneaker store. There is no international Mr. Price with affordable train systems for the working country. All forms of infrastructure are a potential burden on the wallets of the state, and its citizens.

For countries looking to procure a modern train  system that will meet the needs of its working people, be cheap enough to finance, provide the ability to maintain the level of skill required for operation, and maintain the asset as it ages through the decades, the numbers start tallying up.

For the most part this is because people generally misunderstand the level of complexity that goes into running modern train systems. These things just aren’t giant canisters with wheels at the bottom. There are entire communications and information systems built into the daily operations of rail networks just to ensure your commute stays punctual and you don’t potentially end up crashing into other folks on their way to work at 120km/h in the opposite direction. After all of that, there is still the training of dedicated drivers, engineers, station staff, and all other necessary components.

In fact, if we wanted to build the exact equivalent of rail systems found in developed countries it could run up to billions of dollars. The equivalent to hundreds of Nkandla’s built right next to each other, with extra fire pools just for fun. And with the global consensus on mega-projects being that they are prone to run over budget, expect no less from a rail development programme.

Fortunately for many South Africans the current government has already begun the procurement process for new trains. Unfortunately, it is the current government we are speaking of, and thus there is going to be some questionable activities building up to anything.


PRASA stands for the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa, a state owned entity started in 2008 to manage the extensive passenger rail system in the country and to lead a new rail revolution. For the most part, its existence seems highly necessary as there remains a need for the South African populace to efficiently manage the passenger rail assets we do have. However, PRASA has become a symbol of the corruption and incompetency that continues to describe our state owned entities.

Under the guise of industrial development PRASA undertook a rail recapitalisation project that saw billions of rands pumped into the state owned entity. This was followed by a deal struck with firm Swifambo that saw PRASA being provided with new trains to the amount of R3.5 billion (about $235 million~2016/06/20). Named the Afro 4000, the locomotives were meant to modernise South African rail transport. And I won’t lie, they looked pretty good.


However, it was soon discovered that the trains were too tall and would not run efficiently on the South African tracks. This has resulted in PRASA now requesting a refund from the firm, and the entire procurement program has thus been called into question.

At the center of this scandal is Lucky Montana.

The first time  I heard of Mr. Montana was through a Financial Mail article lauding him for his efforts over the years as head of PRASA, denouncing the shady characters who would have him fired.

Yet almost immediately after the article was published, the bubbling pot of suspicion burst into public space, with accusations flying between Montana and his board. After some time there was a formal investigation by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, which resulted in a report that described countless corruption cases, where contracts worth billions of rands were awarded to companies in exchange for bribes or favors. Mr. Montana has since been removed from his position as CEO, and PRASA is currently revising all major contracts under the recommendations of the Auditor General and Public Protector.

To further this point, it was recently uncovered that immediately after the announcement of his dismissal from PRASA, Mr. Montana informed his IT manager to delete information from a laptop that had “sensitive” information on it.

Pictured here: Lucky Montana, former CEO of PRASA. A fairly suspicious individual. 

This is situation has thrown into jeopardy all that was to be done through the PRASA procurement plan, but it can still be brought back from the edges through careful management and planning.

Facing our failures


The first step in revising our rail system is a change of mentality and perspective. For many South Africans, the metro rail system remains a transport mode indicative of poverty. This can be further shown through the introduction of the Gautrain, a modern rail system aimed at transporting the more affluent of Gauteng residents.

The Gautrain is a great train, one I have used quite often to travel between Pretoria and Johannesburg. Yet, on every journey I have ever taken on the train there is an underlying  theme of otherness towards its counterpart, as if one train exists in an alternate reality to the other. The Gautrain with its sleekness, punctuality, speed and modernity emphasizing all the short-fallings of the metro rail, and hence our society.

This is not to say that the Gautrain makes no sense. A simple Google search of the train brings up countless articles echoing its resounding success in reaching passenger objectives, as well as the positive economic knock-on effects. But there must be a honest reflection of its existence as a natural separator of wealth.


Pictured here: The benefits of money.

The justification I usually hear for this is that the trains are meant for different uses. One connecting the major economic hubs of the province, and the other servicing individual locations. And as much as that might be true for other rail services around the world, when it comes to inequality, I do believe in South African exceptionalism.

It goes without saying that in relation to rail transport in Gauteng, in our hopes to transform our transport system, there exists an unequal structure of our own making. The Apartheid government didn’t establish a train system that priced out the working class, with its own stations and locomotives. We did that, and we have to fix it.

Rail as a mode of transport is meant to be inclusive. Any tourist to Japan would inform you of the time spent simply marveling at the rail network they had built and its ability to bring people of all walks of life into a single journey. No need to excessively differentiate the working class and middle class.


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It is not, however, my expectation that we replicate the Japanese rail system here, but rather take valuable lessons from countries that have successfully managed and developed their rail systems.

Priority Points


Allow me to indicate a few potential solutions to our current problems.

In the case of the East Asian states such as Japan and South Korea, a heavy emphasis on excellence and accountability is core to management priorities. In an industry that is the lifeblood to economic activity in a country, there can be no room for regular failure. This is why a functional education and training program is at the root of our issues.

For far too long the notion of simply skilling workers has been the primary motivations behind training initiatives launched by various transport firms. A primary misunderstanding of this one-dimensional approach to service is that individuals work better once acquiring the required skills for the job. Transport is essentially a service industry, and as much as employees need to comprehend the functioning of their work, they need to ascribe value and dignity to the manner in which it gets done. In short, taking pride in their work.

In terms of accountability, there already exists a public outcry for the death of corruption, and it appears that state bodies such as the Public Protector and Auditor General will play larger roles in state business going forward. With the additional pressure from the finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, for state bodies to manage state funds better and benefit more from each tax rand spent, there is a renewed hope that state owned entities such as PRASA can be turn around. All that is required now is the inclusion of further accountability mechanisms that place the former activities of corrupt individuals firmly in the past.

Secondly, if we are to have a functioning transport system that is inclusive, we have to improve the security of existing infrastructure. Beyond the usual security guard positioned to keep watch of potential troublemakers, commuters must feel safe on a train, be it metrorail or Gautrain, and this strikes a particularly difficult challenge for South African rail managers. Without pouring over the statistics its clear we have a lot of crime, and this has to be considered when approaching the way in which we design systems to include people, and ensure that rail assets aren’t burnt or damaged in the latest protest.

Thirdly, private industry has to be part of the conversation. When it comes to rail, the industry remains particularly flexible on finding economic models that work. Whilst other states such as Japan have developed industries driven by private firms, many European states have entirely state-owned systems; and both have succeeded. For the South African context this bodes well for development. We should aim at all times to have mixed relationships in infrastructure development. In this way we can develop local industry whilst lifting the burden on the state; and providing more leg room in the budget to focus on social needs such as education and healthcare.

Through private partnerships we may be able to control ticket pricing issues, long term maintenance costs, and operations of daily functions. And let us not forget the shadow of unemployment that has yet to feel the relief of industry.

Finally, the taxi problem. Whilst rail faces heavy competition from other role players, all pale in comparison to that of the taxi industry. Forcefully interrupting any initiative that could potentially take customers through protest, violence, and some alleged assassinations;  the taxi industry is an obstacle not easily evaded. This is why government can no longer take a passive approach to this issue. There must be clear signal to taxi bosses that there exists a future with them, but it will only exist in communion with other transport, and never over the barrel of a gun.


Rail transport in South Africa has come a long way, and the progress we have made cannot be overlooked after every failure. But as things move forward there is a need to reassess all that has gotten us here, and what may take us forward. The role of government, management standards, and technological development are all factors that require fervent discussion if we are ever to build a transport system for a new urbanised South Africa.




Disclaimer: In this article I have not had the chance to go into all the technicalities that surround South African rail transport, but it is my hope that for the few that read this, there is a clearer understanding of where we are, and where we need to go. I will continue to write on this matter in future. 





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