The R117-million Kei Rail project between East London and Mthatha in the Eastern Cape — which was meant to create jobs, provide quick and affordable public transport, and inject the province with an economic boost — is running again, but not at full steam.
Eighteen of its coaches, which were intended to be used in an expansion programme, have been sold to Angola.
The train project began its stop-start journey at the end of last year when all operations were halted due to a lack of funding from the government.
Then, in July, the Eastern Cape department of transport re-injected R67-million in capital to get the train back on track. But operations had barely resumed when, in August, the expansion programme coaches were sold to Angola.
The Mail & Guardian reported in March that the government stopped funding the train in November 2010, derailing the job-creation project. The train stopped operating in December 2010, after the transport department failed to pay Transnet Rail Engineering (TRE) R84-million owed in terms of a contract for maintenance and supply of coaches.
Railways Africa reported in August that Kei Rail’s coaching stock was repossessed by Transnet Rail Engineering (TRE).
“The sold-off coaching stock consists of 13 economy class sitter coaches, two business class sitters, one economy class sleeper, two kitchen/bar/lounge-cars and two power coaches to generate electricity for air-conditioning and other needs.
“The 48-seat business class coaches have reclining seats, footrests and overhead luggage racks. Each of the fully equipped kitchen cars has an adjoining lounge/bar area with both stool seating and long tables, and serving hatches are provided,” Railways Africa said.
These coaches were originally part of Kei’s expansion programme.
The Eastern Cape Department of Transport did not respond to the M&G‘s questions regarding the payment to TRE about the R84-million owed to it. But it did confirm it had allocated R67-million to Kei Rail in the current financial year.
The failure of the department of transport to adequately fund the project had not just adversely affected Kei but also the Nelson Mandela Bay tourism project, which has had to shut down the narrow gauge Apple Express tourist operation out of Port Elizabeth.
Operations resumed in July, however.
This was confirmed by rail enthusiast, Hilton Skuy, resident of Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, who “manned” the South African rail stand at the annual Africa Rail conference in Sandton earlier this year.
With the resumption of Kei’s services, the Eastern Cape’s provincial minister for transport, roads and public works, Thandiswa Marawu, said that a single Kei Rail train was now able to transport 464 passengers between Mthatha and East London, at a cost of R30 per passenger.
When the Kei Rail project was launched, about 1 400 unskilled and semi-skilled people found employment and small business gained contracts to paint bridges, build tracks and construct fencing. This employment fell away when the train service stopped, and information about whether these jobs have been recreated since the service resumed has not been made available.
Recent passenger volumes statistics, sent through by the department of transport in the Eastern Cape, showed a growing interest in this service, especially in the month of July. “To date, 10 553 rural people have been transported,” said director of communications Ncedo Kumbaca.
In just one day in July, 791 passengers used the train, he told the M&G.
Marawu said: “It clearly shows that we took the right decision by getting this project back on track. The statistics show that there is huge business potential for various public transport modes if they can work together through a feeder system to support this project.”
“We are going to hear less about taxis, buses and trains. Instead we will talk about the public transport industry — geared for this integrated approach. You need to start building a culture of collaboration with other public transport role players and learn best business practices that can help this industry to realise its potential,” she said.
However, rail analyst John Batwell commented: “The resurrection of the Kei Rail service is an important yardstick to measure the Eastern Cape department of transport and local government’s attempts regarding a vital transport organ in a very poor area of the country.”
But he felt the sale of the coaching stock was disappointing and the injection of R67-million inadequate: “The loss of 18 pieces of stock impacts on the ideal of growing and expanding the Kei business.
“Just how far will the R67-million injection in recent months last and will this service continue to be an erratic stop-start operation lacking long-term sustainability as small injections of monies are used up?”
The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for all our stories, activities and sources of funding.