Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula on Tuesday clarified that the government was not planning to privatise rail infrastructure but to grant private investors concessions on under-utilised branch lines to bring them back to operation.
“We are not advocating for privatisation, we must not be second-guessed on this matter,” Mbalula told the National Assembly in a debate on the state of the commuter rail system.
Prasa is not being privatised, nor its main branch lines. The government is working on concessioning out some of the under-utilised branch lines and thereby extending the commuter rail service and allowing in private sector investors and players to enter the mainstream rail services.”
He said this would prove crucial to the future of the rail service and serve as a catalyst towards the improvement of services.
Mbalula conceded that the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) “has been ravaged, has been run down, has been a complete mess”.
But he stressed that the current government policy was to right the entity, not to privatise or devolve the running of trains.
“The mandate of the ANC is to strengthen Prasa.”
The remarks come a fortnight after President Cyril Ramaphosa suggested privatising some of the country’s train routes in the recovery plan he tabled as a blueprint to reviving the economy in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
He said opposition calls to allow metros to take over the running of railway lines to mitigate a situation where less than half of the country’s main commuter rail corridors were operational were “self-serving”.
It would only exacerbate the problems with commuter rail as local authorities lacked the money to restore service after a sustained wave of vandalism laid waste to lines and stations.
As Prasa executives have done in recent briefings to parliamentary committees, Mbalula said the first imperative was a massive security drive that would develop in-house capacity after completely outsourcing security at vast cost failed to stem vandalism.
“The sad reality is that security-related incidents in the rail environment are out of control.”
Therefore, the procurement drive, which has been given a shot in the arm by a recent virement from National Treasury of R900 million (US$56 million), would be based on “developing requisite internal capability”.
This would involve an armed response capacity, drone surveillance of infrastructure and specialised investigation support in the hope of securing more convictions of those who target railway lines and stations.
The minister said the investment would not only create jobs but also serve as an essential building block for the economy by providing reliable, affordable public transport for the working class.
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