08 December 2020

Will the trains ever run again?

 One of the little-remarked casualties of the Covid-19 epidemic has been passenger train services. And it seems doubtful that they will ever run again. 

Passenger trains stopped running during the lockdown, and the entire network will have to be rebuilt almost from scratch if they are to run again, because much of the infrastructure has been stolen or vandalised.

Hatfield Station 28 Jul 2014. Gautrain on left, |Metrorail on right  

Last time I looked the Gautrain still seemed to be running, but Metrorail trains were not. In the picture above, of Hatfield Station in Pretoria, the Gautrain tracks on the left are 4ft 8.5 inches, while the Transnet tracks on the right, with a Metrorail suburban train passing on its way to Mamelodi is on 3 ft 6 in tracks. On the far right are the Gautrain feeder buses. Will we ever see such a sight again?

Metrorail train in Kilner Park 6 August 2014

The Metrorail suburban train above was one of those that passed our house, just across the street from us, at least twice an hour throughout the day. But no more. Soon after the lockdown began, the overhead wires were stolen. Three or four times a week we heard the sound of gunfire when cops and private security company employees battled it out with cable thieves, and clearly the cops lost. 

Last year we saw mysterious new trains in blue livery, running around empty, apparently being tested. Then they about a year ago they appeared carrying passengers, so these were apparently Metrorail's brand new rolling stock in new livery. But when the lockdown started in February 2020 they stopped running, and now they can't run, because the wires are all gone. 

Brand-new Metrorail suburban train 11 Oct 2019

The new trains can only have been in passenger service for about 6-8 months, and now they have been rendered useless. How much did they cost? Who made them? Have they been paid for, or are we still paying for them?

What appears to have happened is that when the lockdown began at Level 5, all train services were cancelled, and no trains ran at all, so the current in the wires was turned off to save electricity, but that also made it easier to steal the wires, so that when the lockdown eased, the trains service could not be resumed, because the wires were gone. Now the goods trains are running again, drawn by diesel locomotives, but it seems that the "new normal" will be without passenger trains altogether. 

But that is not the whole story, because long before Covid-19 had been heard of or identified, back in 2019, much of the overhead wiring had already been stolen from the main Pretoria-Johannesburg line, at least from Kloofsig to Pretoria central station. But no one seemed to notice, and no one seemed to care. 

There was little mention of it in the media -- the most prominent article I could find about it was this Stripped bare: Looting till there is nothing left of Gauteng's Rail Network, and it doesn't seem to have caused much of a stir. The trade unions seem to have had little to say, but what has happened to all the Metrorail and Prasa workers whose jobs, apparently, have gone for ever?

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