Former Transnet exec Tau Morwe on SA’s rail disaster: “Bring back the Railway Police”

In a recent interview, former Financial Mail deputy editor David Williams told Alec Hogg about the poor state of the South African railways are currently in. Williams revealed the lack of security, clashes between Transnet and PRASA, as well as the poor governance that led to the rapid demise of our railway system. “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,” he lamented. Former Transnet executive Tau Morwe reiterates Williams’ grievances, telling broadcaster Tim Modise of the crime and vandalism that goes unpunished. The former acting chief executive says the government needs to do something, with the reintroduction of the railway police the first priority. Jarryd Neves

Tau Morwe on what’s happening with the railway system and infrastructure:

I would like to highlight the lack of security as one of the issues affecting rail transportation, pertaining to both passenger rail and cargo. I think the second issue is the ageing railing stock, outdated technology, inefficient use of land [which is] characterised by settlements mushrooming closer to the rails. If I recall some 20 years back, Transnet – via Spoornet back then – went to parliament and asked that the railway police be brought back. That has never happened. Another element that one now sees is the [increasing] incidents of blatant sabotage.

In November 2018, for instance, people used a blowtorch to cut the rail line. It’s a combination of theft [and] vandalism that has brought us to where we are today. One does not see any consequences. In any other country, if people go around carrying blowtorches and cutting rail, there would be some serious consequences.

On why there are no consequences for railway vandals

We would expect [the authorities to do something about it]. In March of 2001, Transnet went to parliament and raised the very same issues we are talking about now. Nothing has happened. The issue of the railway police, nothing ever happened. If you look at rail market share back in 2009, it was sitting at 30%. The estimate, currently, is that its sitting at 21% or less. Yet, from a political perspective, that doesnt seem to be any action. 

On why there is no will to bring the railway police back

I really cant pinpoint what the problem is, but I would put the problem at the door of the politicians. Twenty years ago, these issues were raised. I recall around 2009 and 2010, I was acting chief executive at Transnet Freight Rail and a number of trains – trains full of diesel – were derailed. That was done on purpose. A train full of some hazardous chemicals derailed. Again, that was on purpose.

I even had to contact the security establishment and show them the pictures of what is happening. Up until today, nothing has happened. One does not want to say, look, it is related to what is happening in the country today but I think the politicians ought to deal with this question. If 20 years ago they requested to bring back the railway police, why have they not done that?

Why, on a year-to-year basis, does over 364km of cables have to be stolen? Nothing has happened. A few years ago, we established the cable theft index with the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Again, nothing has happened. Today, the current leadership of Transnet complains about perceived sabotage in derailments. I think the Department of Transport or Department of Public Enterprises can deal with the issue of political will. But definitely, there doesnt seem to be the will to deal with the issue. 

If you look, for instance, at the Metrorail situation in Cape Town [and] Langa – where youve got settlements on the railway – I think its only natural that some action is being taken to remove the settlements. It shouldnt really take that long to deal with these problems because the economy is affected negatively. 

On PRASA and commuter rail

I want to go back a little bit, in terms of the rail infrastructure. Years ago, you had Transnet responsible for both metro rail mainline passenger services and then cargo; you had all the infrastructure residing within Transnet. 

Years later, when PRASA was formed, the infrastructure was apportioned to Metro Rail and to Transnet. My personal opinion is that in a single country, once you change rail infrastructure and start splitting it up, you are inviting problems. That is where we are today and if you were to ask me what [the solution is], I would say, lets look at whats happening in Germany, for instance.

There, youve got a state-run entity, running both the infrastructure and operations. Now the question we can ask is, should an entity like Metro Rail be running infrastructure or should they be running trains? From a policy point of view, we have to look at the government. We do not have the rail policy on the table. It goes back to the policy-makers.

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