Metrorail trains. Picture: MARIANNE SCHWANKHART
Metrorail trains. Picture: MARIANNE SCHWANKHART

Passenger rail agency Prasa’s managers face an onerous decision each day: can they in good conscience operate their Metrorail trains to convey 1.7-million commuters to and from work, or is it just too unsafe to travel by train in SA?

The Rail Safety Regulator leans towards the latter. Earlier in October it again suspended Prasa’s safety permit on the grounds that the rail agency cannot demonstrate that it has the ability, commitment and resources to assess and control the safety risks arising from its railway operations. This is a step the regulator is taking with increasing frequency.

To avoid the entire passenger rail network being shut down, Prasa took the regulator to court. This resulted in an out-of-court settlement and the regulator rescinded Prasa’s suspension. The court also ordered Prasa to comply with the safety requirements set out by the regulator.

Prasa’s best response so far has been to participate in a three-way scheme to beef up rail security in the Western Cape, but even in this effort the agency has been derelict

This means the trains are running and the economy, such as it is, continues to function. The fact is, however, that neither Prasa nor the regulator can say with a degree of certainty that rail passengers will get through their commute without being harmed. Trains are set on fire, they derail or collide and gangs rampage through overcrowded carriages.

People die on SA’s trains and Prasa is liable, as the Constitutional Court ruled in 2015.

The settlement order, which subjects Prasa to court supervision, constitutes progress in that Prasa is being compelled to meet scheduled safety targets. It does not mean, however, that the trains have become safe in the few days that followed the regulator’s suspension of Prasa’s permit until the settlement agreement was ordered.

Prasa’s best response so far has been to participate in a three-way scheme to beef up rail security in the Western Cape, but even in this effort the agency has been derelict. The City of Cape Town, the Western Cape provincial government and Prasa agreed to establish a 100-strong ancillary security force at a cost of R16m each, but the rollout was delayed because Prasa delayed its contribution.

Besides being confined to the Cape, the deployment of this force, scheduled for this week, seems woefully inadequate considering the scope of its task. And it does not tackle the state of Metrorail’s equipment or its frustratingly tardy service, which must be partly to blame for the vandalism and carriage fires.

It is reasonable to assume that rail passengers who have a choice would not set foot on a Metrorail train. That people already make this choice is evident from Prasa’s plummeting passenger numbers. The trouble is, most of Prasa’s passengers have no choice. As the regulator puts it, “Prasa mainly serves the poorest of the poor‚ with no alternative means of transport to travel to and from work. They should not be made to choose between that and life.”

Yet that is what people do and, for the sake of the economy, it is what they must continue doing. A countrywide shutdown of SA’s commuter rail network is a dire prospect, which the settlement with the regulator has prevented, but equally dire is the prospect of the daily gauntlet Prasa’s passengers are forced to run.

It has long been clear that Prasa is failing the country and its people. As long ago as 2013, former public protector Thuli Madonsela reported the agency as “Derailed”. Civil society group #UniteBehind says Prasa is a national disaster. This is true on several levels, afflicted as Prasa is by a combination of corruption, the incapacity to spend its budget allocation and an apparent disregard for the safety of its customers.

It is in SA’s national interest to redeem the agency, however, and the place to start is minister Blade Nzimande’s transport department, which has the responsibility to stabilise Prasa’s management. Prasa has enough cash available to procure rolling stock, modernise signalling equipment and police these assets.

South Africans would like to know that each morning as the trains roll out, the Prasa board has made a somewhat less onerous decision.