Fikile Mbalula. Picture: SOWETAN
Fikile Mbalula. Picture: SOWETAN

Vision is one thing, wasteful dreaming quite another. Last week, transport minister Fikile Mbalula spoke in parliament of how "we shall commission a full feasibility study and financing models to achieve this collective dream" of running bullet trains across the country.

It was a sop to President Cyril Ramaphosa, who in his state of the nation address fantasised about building such a network. But Mbalula’s reaction suggests that yet again, money will be diverted to a pet project in a country where the real priorities couldn’t be more stark.

Of course it would be very nice to have bullet trains linking Gauteng with Durban and Cape Town. But their construction and operation would bankrupt the country. With Eskom and SAA already vying to do that, another cash-guzzling white elephant is the last thing we need.

As usual, the garrulous Mbalula seems not to be thinking at all. Former Transnet CEO Siyabonga Gama floated the bullet train idea nearly a decade ago. Then, as now, it was completely unaffordable, with a price tag estimated at R1-trillion-plus.

There are also awkward technical details. Our one high-speed train, the Gautrain, has a broad track gauge: the 4ft 8½in (1.435m) that Britain, the inventor of railways, exported in the 19th century to Europe and the US. But there is a very good reason that the national rail gauge in SA is considerably narrower, at 3ft 6in (1,067m).

The economic heart of the country is Gauteng, 2,000m above sea level and 600km from Durban, the nearest port. Half of that altitude is reached over the hilly 90km between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. The engineering required to lay a broader, wider-curved track with new alignments, gradients, tunnels and bridges would be prohibitively expensive — even if the country could boast strong economic growth.

And don’t tell Mbalula, but there already exists a potentially very efficient rail link between Johannesburg and Durban. It has been electrified since the 1920s and double-tracked since the 1950s, when it carried more than 100 trains a day. Today, the frequency is about one-tenth that number.

As with our commuter rail operations (which are steadily disintegrating), the present infrastructure must be fixed and properly operated, not replaced. It matters not if freight trains make the journey to Durban in 14 hours rather than seven — as long as the service is reliable.

But if we really want faster trains on our narrow gauge, local technology has been available for more than 40 years. An SA Railways engineer, Herbert Scheffel, invented a coach bogie that solved the problem of instability when going into narrow-gauge curves at high speeds. The prototype, known as the Metroblitz, went into service between Johannesburg and Pretoria in the 1980s, and achieved speeds of up to 200km/h. It was withdrawn because it was hobbled by the clutter of slower trains on the network.

Ramaphosa is intelligent and strategic, a smart political operator. He likes the big picture, and is adept at getting people of opposing views to work together. He has made shrewd appointments.

Yet his bullet train fantasy reflects the instinctive response of the ANC to problems — offer distracting dreams. Our most desperate need is at local government level, where municipalities are collapsing due to the failure of basic infrastructure.

These are formidably intractable problems, politically and practically, so we have heard little about how they will be fixed. Making plans for bridges through the Drakensberg is much more interesting than trying to stop cable theft, fill in potholes and unblock the sewerage system.

This week, SA Revenue Service commissioner Edward Kieswetter revealed that Sars could miss its targets for the sixth year. Job losses and retrenchments are hammering personal tax collection, while poor growth is taking its toll on corporate profits. This, you’d imagine, is not the time to revive a R1-trillion project of doubtful necessity.