Stripped: R364m of rail infrastructure has been lost to looting and sabotage. Picture: Freddy Mavunda
Stripped: R364m of rail infrastructure has been lost to looting and sabotage. Picture: Freddy Mavunda

The tragedy of our collapsed railway network is not only economic; it will also deprive thousands of the joy of travelling by train. Now that train travel is no longer an exclusively white privilege, its demise is even sadder.

The collapse has been documented in an 8,000-word report by FM contributing editor David Williams in April-May for the Brenthurst Foundation and was picked up by the Sunday press at the weekend. It’s grim reading: R364m lost to looting and sabotage, 66% of overhead cables on 3,000km of railways stolen that will cost about R500,000 a kilometre to restore, and more. And that’s just a fragment of the report.

Williams is the ideal investigator/author for such a report. In his days as a journalist on the FM, especially as deputy editor, he often wrote about the railways. As the son of an SA Railways & Harbours electrician, he was also a child of the railroad whose alarm clock in a small redbrick railway house on cold Estcourt mornings was the noise of shunting trains. It didn’t put him off railways, just the opposite — and he loves the railroad still.

That love also makes him optimistic about fixing the broken network, but he admits it will takes billions — and also dedicated and experienced managers, like the ones he met in his research but of whom there are perhaps too few. "It’s not easy to run a railroad," says Williams. "Prasa [the Passenger Rail Agency of SA] has net assets of about R120bn in locomotives, infrastructure and land. [All of that] needs good management."

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