Solution to the rolling stock problem: One of the new commuter trains coming soon from Gibela. Picture: The Times/Sizwe Ndingane
Solution to the rolling stock problem: One of the new commuter trains coming soon from Gibela. Picture: The Times/Sizwe Ndingane

When the Canadian government announced in 1992 it planned to privatise Canadian National (CN) — the inefficient, money-guzzling state-owned railway — it was nearly laughed out of office.

"It’ll be like putting lipstick on a pig," one analyst noted derisively.

But it worked out pretty well for CN, now one of the world’s biggest and most profitable railways.

The Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa), operator of the country’s commuter and long-distance passenger trains, had its own lipstick moment — though we didn’t exactly know it then — in March 2015, when the first new locomotives it had ever owned were craned ashore in Cape Town harbour in front of various dignitaries.

The locomotives, built by Vossloh in Spain, were, as it turned out, too tall to fit safely under the overhead electric wires that cover much of the country’s 22,000km rail network.

It was a most basic error, which even a quick look at the spec sheet would have revealed — the height of the loco compared with the country’s loading gauge — and it says everything about Prasa.

The irony is that the otherwise excellent "Spanish diesels" would have found solid work on the nonelectrified routes, where Shosholoza Meyl’s trains limp along behind elderly diesels that Transnet Freight Rail didn’t want. There lies Prasa’s biggest problem: it is saddled with junk rolling stock — ancient commuter trains and worn-out hand-me-down locomotives.

The new commuter trains coming soon from Gibela may solve some of the rolling stock problem.

The government has now placed Prasa under administration. But without a thorough overhaul of its management, these moves will just be a nicer shade of lipstick.