Carol Paton Editor at Large

SA’s infamous “too tall trains” saga — which led in part to Prasa spending billions on a contract that was cancelled — has left the country’s long-distance rail service in a state of collapse, without reliable locomotives to haul its trains.

The director-general of the department of transport, Alec Moemi, told parliament’s portfolio committee on transport on Tuesday that while media reports had said the trains were too tall, they were found to be compliant by the railway safety regulator (RSR).

However, the R3.5bn contract between Prasa and Swifambo Rail Leasing, which was the middleman in the transaction, was set aside as irregular by a court, leading to the return of the 13 locomotives already in its possession and the cancellation of the contract. While Prasa paid R2.7bn for the locomotives it received, it is yet to recover the money.

The 13 locomotives were auctioned in 2019 when Swifambo went into liquidation. The end result was a serious setback for Prasa, which has seen passenger numbers on long-distance services plummet and long-distance trains stranded for hours due to breakdowns.

“The media reported the trains were too high for the SA rail network but the regulator disagreed. But after the contract was set aside, the locomotives were auctioned, with the result that Prasa doesn’t have locomotives that are reliable,” said Moemi.

Moemi said Prasa has had to lease locomotives that are old and unreliable at exorbitant rates, leading to frequent breakdowns as long as three hours on long-distance lines. The long-distance train service, known as Shosholoza Meyl, has been suspended after the RSR withdrew its certificate of operation following a recent fatal accident.

The “too tall trains” — known as the Afro4000 — had been in operation before they were “confiscated” and had been driven from Cape Town to Johannesburg when they were delivered, a further indication that they had been fit for use, he said.

The RSR’s report on the Afro4000, which was published in November 2015, after the media reports were published, found that while large sections of the network could run the trains, others could not as there was not enough space between the top of the trains and the overhead lines.

The locomotive procurement programme through Swifambo was one of two that aimed to modernise the Prasa fleet. The second — the procurement of more than 7,000 trains over the next 20 years at a cost of R123bn — has also hit a speed bump as the new coaches cannot be run on the damaged rail network. While some of the coaches have been delivered, most are not in use and are parked in yards.

Moemi said Prasa was now slowing the modernisation process while it closed entire sections and lines for complete refurbishment. Cape Town’s central line, which runs from Khayelitsha, through the Cape Flats, to the city, and the Pretoria-Mabopane lines have both been closed until April 2021.