Carol Paton Writer at Large
President Cyril Ramaphosa unveils and tests the new Prasa trains at the Cape Town station in the Western Cape on April 09, 2019, Photo: SUNDAY TIMES/ESA ALEXANDER
President Cyril Ramaphosa unveils and tests the new Prasa trains at the Cape Town station in the Western Cape on April 09, 2019, Photo: SUNDAY TIMES/ESA ALEXANDER

President Cyril Ramaphosa put his Mabopane train disaster behind him on Tuesday by taking the first ride on the first of locally built commuter trains that were commissioned in 2013 to modernise the passenger rail fleet.

The Passenger Rail Association of SA (Prasa) unveiled the sparkling blue new train at Cape Town station, where Ramaphosa cut the ribbon and took a ride to Mowbray station.

The journey was not entirely incident-free as protesters blockaded his exit from the station for nearly an hour. 

Speaking at the launch, Ramaphosa made a big promise.

“I promise that we are going to make our trains run on time and most importantly make sure they are safe,” he said.

As part of an election campaign event in March, Ramaphosa took the train from Mabopane to Pretoria, a 30-minute trip that lasted three hours when the train broke down.

The new trains are part of Prasa’s modernisation programme, which includes the manufacture of 7,224 trains in the next 20 years at a cost of R123bn.

The supplier is the Gibela consortium, which is 61% owned by French multinational Alstom; 30% by BEE consortium Umbambano Rail, which includes Prasa employees; and 9% by new entrant New Africa Rail.

President Cyril Ramaphosa took a short trip on one of two brand new trains in Cape Town on April 9 2019. The new trains are set to be in operation by 2020 as part of a modernisation programme by Prasa to improve and secure infrastructure and safety aboard trains.

The first 20 trains were manufactured in Brazil and the rest are to be built at a new facility at Ekurhuleni. 

The Gibela rolling stock fleet renewal is separate from Prasa’s disastrous attempt to buy new locomotives for long-distance trains. The contract for the locomotives, which were too tall to run on SA rail lines, has been set aside by a court.

Ramaphosa said he is glad that the first train was unveiled in Cape Town “where we have faced enormous challenges”

Rail services in Cape Town are in crisis, with theft, vandalism and poor maintenance causing perpetual breakdowns, lateness and summary cancellations.

Cape Town’s central line, which services Khayelitsha and other neighbouring townships, was shut down for more than a month in 2018 due to the theft of infrastructure.

The rail crisis has put enormous pressure on the roads network as commuters have been forced to switch to road transport.

Protesters who were part of the activist group #UniteBehind led by Zackie Achmat confronted Ramaphosa as he tried to leave the station, saying that their request to attend the event had been denied.

The organisation, formed in response to Cape Town’s transport crisis, had 10 questions for Ramaphosa that included why the government has not pursued those responsible for corruption at Prasa or taken essential steps to improve and secure rail services. 

Western Cape premier Helen Zille said that a rail enforcement unit is making good progress. The joint venture between the city of Cape Town, the province and Prasa was established six months ago and is using drones to monitor rail infrastructure.

Zille said that the province also intends to introduce legislation in the next term that will allow the provinces to set standards for rail transport and establish a rail inspectorate.