MAILBOX: PRASA paralised, Transnet in a trance, provides some hope

In a recent interview (listen here or watch below), the former editor of the Financial Mail, David Williams, took BizNews founder Alec Hogg through the dire state of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA). Myriad issues plague the state-owned entity, ranging from corruption and mismanagement to poor organisation. As Williams described it, “This company is a wreck. If it was a private sector company, it would be beyond business rescue. It would just simply not be functioning.” The interview sparked commentary from viewers and readers alike, many aware of the poor state, but not the extent to which things were falling apart. Below, BizNews community member John Stegmann recalls the heydays of SA rail travel, the fall into disrepair and his idea to reinvigorate the forlorn railways.


David Williams’ comprehensive report on the SA rail service is alarming. Most of us had some idea that bits and pieces were crumbling, but here is the full catastrophe.

The recollections I have are of long-distance travel hauled by a steam locomotive in a sleeper coach with sliding doors to compartments with dark green leather upholstery, Burmese teak pull-up shutters, a wash basin/table and Kruger Park pictures. Grahamstown’s pride was its beautiful railway station that frequently served thousands of school and university scholars. 

A few years ago, I took photos of that railway station. Trains had stopped running because everyone travels by road. The building was so gutted its skeleton appeared to be close to collapsing.  No doors, windows, furniture, partitions, floors, ceilings…

The Laingsburg floods also damaged the line between Touws River and Ladysmith. In December of 1982, three of us decided to ride that abandoned line on bicycles with home-made apparatus. If you provide a bogie to keep the front wheel tracking one rail, and an outrigger to the other rail to keep the bicycle upright, the back wheel will faithfully follow the front wheel.   

I was riding a home-made recumbent bicycle with camping gear as I was on a trip from Cape Town to Plett via Ceres, Touws River, Carlitzdorp, Oudsthoorn and Victoria Bay to ride the TjoeChoo line to Knysna.  

My two companions arrived in Touws River by car, planning to ride as far as Ladysmith. I was interested in turning that abandoned 150km rail corridor into a recreational cycleway*. Once the railway could no longer transport farm produce to the markets, produce had to go by road and once that happened, the railway had no hope of getting the custom back.

The flood played havoc with the railway, sweeping half a kilometre of line aside, leaving the rails – still attached to their Rhodesian teak sleepers – now standing vertically like fence posts. But the scenery was wonderful and as a cycleway, it would surely attract cyclists from far and wide. I was thrilled by the prospect. 

The conversion concept was not enough to get the wheels turning. The SAR&H had the right to expropriate the corridor to provide a rail service for the public. If it no longer offered that service, landowners could reclaim the land and that was uppermost in their minds. We encountered the fences they had already erected.

My next idea, 1998, was to inspire tourist departments along the Garden Route in the Southern Cape to go with the idea of constructing a 350 km cycleway between George and the then-Port Elizabeth. Fly in one end and spend a week or two cycling and fly out the other end. I could jolly up the Cape Provincial Tourist Department and that in the Southern Cape, but it would need the Eastern Cape buy-in as well. Now politics ruled, the provinces were governed by different factions. Without their co-operation the idea lost steam.

Later, in March 2007, my attempts to create the Touws River–Ladysmith and George–PE cycleways were two of four unsuccessful attempts that I presented at the Velo Mondial Conference in Cape Town. Nobody could have foreseen that in August that year, a storm would produce a wash-away on the banks of the Kaaimans River that, together with other wash-aways, would permanently stop the G-K line from operating.

In my view this presented an ideal opportunity to show South Africans the marvellous benefits of a 70 km cycleway through ideal territory. Beautiful scenery, a route with abundant attractions and one penetrating into the middle of George, Wilderness, Sedgefield and Knysna that would enable many locals to use portions as their safe and direct daily commute.

Since the early 1960s, I’d developed a keen interest in transport alternatives other than private cars and had devised a concept for miniaturised automated capsules running on one rail and guided by another overhead for maximum band-width utilisation. The capsules were either two-seaters (cars average 1.4 occupants) or mini containers (roughly the cubic capacity of a half-ton bakkie). The system could be elevated above the cycleway, provide frequent exit/boarding points, run 24/7 on demand non-stop A-to-B, and be independently solar-powered.

We formed an organisation to promote the cycleway. Our formidable opponents were those wishing to reinstate the TjoeChoo. We were successful in preserving the corridor (hugely important) but were both defeated by Transnet, which owned the line. Steam revival was never a realistic option but the cycleway and overhead solar-powered autonomous transportation idea surely now had its best opportunity of letting us show the world what we can do?

Only in 2013 did I discover that cycling advocates in the USA had succeeded in 1982 in establishing a system called Rail Banking in which the owners of a dormant rail reserve gave permission for it be temporarily used as a cycleway pending the reopening of the line. One can only agonise over the loss that tourism and cyclists have suffered by the total paralysis that set in with the indecision over the use of the G-K corridor.  

*Cycleway 

Bill Mylrea and I founded Pedal Power in Cape Town in 1976 to promote ‘safe and enjoyable commuter and recreational cycling’. It meant creating a network of dedicated cycle paths for the Peninsula. The first Argus Cycle Tour in 1978 was to show the City Fathers that if they were to lend us 100km of their prettiest roads, we’d prove to them that there exists a latent desire to cycle; then hidden by the real dangers and unpleasant noise and fumes associated with attempting to use roads designed for and dominated by motorised vehicles.

The success of the first two Tours led to the city engineer asking me to form a team and present a scheme, with costs, to the City Council in 1979. Transport engineer Louis de Waal was on that team and he produced definitions for four distinct classes of cycle path. From the cyclist’s point of view, a cycleway is the most desirable. It envisages a dedicated reserve for human-powered transportation quite separate from footpaths and road reserves for other traffic. These definitions were in our report and became generally accepted.

John Stegmann

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