Wednesday panel: What is wrong with Mbalula’s road-to-rail freight plan?

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'It's as if there's been a war and there's been no reconstruction after it.'

Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula says the way to prevent horrific crashes like the Pongola tragedy that claimed 20 lives is to shift road freight to rail. He said this just days after a Stats South Africa report showed that South Africa's rail system was in severe decline. In June 2012, 45.3 million of us took a train somewhere in South Africa.

In June this year, that number is just 1.008 million - a reduction of 98%. Pippa Hudson speaks to rail transport expert David Williams and Lorenzo Davids, chief executive of the Development Impact Fund, about whether the minister's plan is practical.

Rovos Rail. (C) Michael Turner/123rfRovos Rail. (C) Michael Turner/123rf

I would say [the rail network] is about to be lowered into the grave... On the passenger side, there are no trains running to speak of.

David Williams, trail transport expert

There is a functioning rail service in Cape Town, I use it... but I share the deep concern it's probably not going to come back on a national level.

That's our problem.

Lorenzo Davids, chief executive officer of the Development Impact Fund

Customers are hesitant to come back to rail, said one caller.

We have to understand that if we were to build a viable service, we have to make sure the trains are full and people migrate back to stations... we're down to one million [passengers]. We can't sustain the service like that.

Lorenzo Davids, chief executive officer of the Development Impact Fund

But Davids said there was a big conversation that isn't being had.

The pandemic was severe, but there were intentional forces behind that which saw the opportunity to break down the rail service for private benefit. That's the conversation we are not having.

We are not talking about the saboteurs who went in to dismantle rail so that other industries could benefit from that.

Both in the transport sector but also in security and other agencies.

That's a big discussion.

Williams agreed, saying there isn't only opportunistic stealing, and said government has done a lot of work on policy but it isn't showing.

In Cape Town, there were suspicions of road interests actually destroying infrastructure... there was a spate of arson with a lot of railways being set on fire... clearly there were deliberate moves to favour criminal interests and sectors.

David Williams, trail transport expert

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