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Systemic Issues and Cable Theft Undermine Shosholoza Meyl's Comeback

Published December 27, 2023
7 months ago

The much-awaited revival of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa)'s Shosholoza Meyl long-distance train services came with a mix of hope and hesitance. While the reinstatement of the iconic train was celebrated by many, including enthusiasts like Keanu Joseph, systemic challenges quickly cast a shadow on the festivities.

A Prasa executive, requesting anonymity due to fear of repercussions, voiced sincere trepidations about the operational fluidity of the re-initiated services. The primary concerns highlighted were frequent delays, potential trip cancellations, and the unpredictability of reaching destinations. This, the executive stressed, stems from a saturated rail network that is in dire need of a dedicated long-distance line.

Railway consultant and expert Dylan Knott from African Railway Systems corroborated these worries, pointing out the necessity for an extensive upgrade of the rail network. Knott identified the lack of proper maintenance, inadequate crew, and insufficient locomotives as contributing factors to the inefficiency of the current system. However, financial constraints make the construction of a new network a distant dream for South Africa.

After a two-year suspension in response to operational challenges and network infrastructure issues, the Shosholoza Meyl resumed services in December 2021. Tasked with providing relief to financially strained travelers over the holiday period, the resumption was not smooth sailing. Amongst the immediate setbacks were shortages in locomotives and prioritization disputes with Transnet Freight Rail, which manages the tracks and typically prioritizes goods trains over passenger services.

Safety and security also remain pertinent issues, with instances of heightened criminal activity necessitating an increased police presence at stations. But full coverage is nearly impossible, leaving gaps in passenger protection.

Infrastructure conditions have also been a consistent point of distress. With cable theft being a substantial impediment to Shosholoza Meyl's operations—as relayed by Prasa spokesperson Andiswa Makanda—passengers on the Johannesburg to Cape Town trip on December 8, 2021, were left completing their journey by bus due to overhead cable theft at Wellington Station.

Despite the impediments, Prasa reaffirmed its commitment to overcoming the hurdles and regaining public trust in its services. Yet, the financial implications of proper maintenance and infrastructure development to enable trains to operate at full potential remain a sizable challenge.

Moreover, Bloomberg's report on Botswana's consideration of a rail line to a Namibian port—to bypass South Africa's failing logistics—only underscores the regional implications of the issues at hand.

Local officials, such as Western Cape Provincial MEC of Mobility Ricardo Mackenzie, advocate for devolution of rail services, suggesting that if local governments had control, they could more effectively address the key issues and integrate rail with other modes of transport. This would be in line with the province's economic priorities and provide a quality service for commuters.

Despite the troubles, the Shosholoza Meyl continues offering an affordable travel option, with economy and sleeper class tickets promising a practical yet comfortable journey across South Africa's scenic routes.

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