President Cyril Ramaphosa unveils and tests the new Prasa trains at the Cape Town station in the Western Cape on April 9 2019. Picture: 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 9 2019. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/ESA ALEXANDER

The cash-strapped Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) resumed limited passenger rail operations in three provinces on Wednesday as it gradually reopens services stopped due to the Covid-19 national lockdown.

The resumption of passenger rail services in the Eastern Cape, Gauteng and Western Cape forms part of a staggered approach to service recovery.

However, the United National Transport Union (Untu) acting general secretary John Pereira said the union seriously doubts the passenger rail utility is ready to resume operations, given its cash flow constraints.

Transport minister Fikile Mbalula, who visited train stations in Pretoria to inspect their state of readiness with regards to Covid-19 regulations, said infrastructure upgrades and rolling stock refurbishments were suspended under the initial lockdown regulations.

“To make matters worse, vandalism continued to plague the train sets and stations, further setting the agency back,” he said. “The outbreak of Covid-19 has interrupted the momentum we had gained as we worked to repair Prasa. In dealing with the coronavirus, Prasa was forced to halt its operations, thus losing revenue.”

Prasa projects a revenue loss of R757m for 2020. It announced in May that it was facing a “debilitating cash-flow crunch” after failing to pay R23m to employees’ retirement fund benefits for two months.

Prasa said it is considering job cuts through voluntary severance packages to ease its financial woes. It has lost R199m since the start of the Covid-19 lockdown in March.

Prasa, which is in the process of appointing a new board, has had five turnaround strategies since its inception. It received a disclaimer from the auditor-general in 2019, prompting Mbalula to fire the board and place Prasa under administrator Bongisizwe Mpondo in December 2019.

Prasa spokesperson Makhosini Mgitywa said, as a start, only four lines will be operating from Wednesday: Gauteng — operating between Pienaarspoort and Pretoria Stations; the Western Cape — operating between Cape Town and Retreat Stations; and the Eastern Cape will operate the East London and Port Elizabeth lines.

Mpondo said with the protocols they have put in place, a 12-coach train set, which normally takes 2,300 passengers at a time, will operate at 15% of maximum capacity, “so we will be transporting 345 passengers in a 12-coach train-set”.

Gauteng is looking to transport about 11,000 passengers a day, the Western Cape 13,000, and Eastern Cape 4,500.

Pereira said it is crucial for the embattled economy that Prasa resume as many of its passenger train services as possible, “as they provide the cheapest form of transport for millions of workers”.

“Untu calls on all commuters and communities to assist with the fight against vandalism and theft of Prasa infrastructure, and to report any incidents. Prasa belongs to all the SA taxpayers who fund it. It is a vital asset that we, as South Africans, need to protect for generations to come.”

SA Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) general secretary Jack Mazibuko and deputy general secretary Anele Kiet did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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