Welcome to the first circle: Zimbabwean nationals enter Park Station in Joburg. Picture: Sowetan/Antonio Muchave
Welcome to the first circle: Zimbabwean nationals enter Park Station in Joburg. Picture: Sowetan/Antonio Muchave

If you have ever caught a long-distance bus from Johannesburg’s Park Station, you will know that it is, at times, like being cast into one of the nine circles of hell with lost souls, sorry, passengers, choking on clouds of sulphurous diesel smoke from idling buses.

Having to pay for access to this waiting room of the damned is one of the reasons that private bus operators took the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) to the Competition Commission, which in turn ruled this week that Prasa must head to the Competition Tribunal for abusing its power.

Prasa has a lot of haters these days, starting with millions of commuters who are rarely assured that their train will actually reach its destination without breaking down or catching fire.

Easy, then, to pat the commission on the back and stick it to this mismanaged, gravy-gobbling, dogshow of a state-owned enterprise, except that this will be a tribunal to watch.

Prasa’s submission to the commission alleged, among other things, that it wanted to level the playing field to allow smaller operators to eat at the table of SA’s long-distance bus business.

The agency claims ongoing resistance from dominant bus operators — and not just for the parking fees which it claimed, without any irony, remove "a barrier to entry" — but also that they have opposed every new permit application from smaller operators.

One of the oft-touted delusions inducing bus companies to operate from Prasa railway stations is intermodality — connections with rail. But of the 588 Prasa stations, buses call at only nine, and probably not so their passengers can catch onward trains.

Which raises the question: why don’t the bus companies build their own bus hub and forever put an end to Prasa’s rent-seeking?