Railway commuters promised first-class ride.

A new commuter transport agency is to spend R25-billion to make South Africa’s rail network up to date and efficient.

The department of transport has expanded the mandate of the SA Rail Commuter Corporation (Sarcc) and changed it into the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa), which will spend R25-billion over the next three years to transform the public transport system.

This is the culmination of a number of measures, including the consolidation of Metrorail, previously part of Transnet, into Sarcc in 2006.

This will be followed by the transfer of Shosholoza Meyl and Autopax (long-distance buses) from Transnet.

Tshepo Lucky Montana, the CEO of Prasa, said that, of the R25-billion, R14.7-billion will be used to upgrade coaches, and for signalling projects, technology infrastructure, station upgrades and 2010 World Cup station upgrades.

But rail infrastructure in South Africa is old and significant additional funding will be needed to update it. This is not included in the R25-billion.

Montana said that, by about 2005, passenger rail transport had been on the decline for years for a number of reasons, including crime and safety issues, more coaches going out of service than coming in, ageing infrastructure , and loss of skills.

Passenger trips dropped from 790million a year to 500million a year.

Public transport has always fallen under a number of different agencies. Montana said that “due to fragmentation, the responsibility for passenger transport service provision did not facilitate the seamless movement of passengers.

“The old model for commuter rail created a separation of asset ownership and operations that resulted in severe limitations in the business’s ability to deliver effective commuter rail services”.

The new agency’s task is to improve services for passengers and provide a sustainable, integrated and efficient rapid mass transport network.

In 2005, the cabinet approved a rail plan largely focused on the routes with the highest capacity.

The initial focus was to arrest the decline. Sarcc spent over R5-billion refurbishing coaches and improving rail infrastructure. It has made some progress on safety, including re-introducing the railways police.

“In the past three years, we have turned around crime. Overall, nationally, the crime rate is down by 38percent ,” Montana said.

Train trips a year have increased to 643million, train cancellations have been reduced dramatically and the service is close to its 90percent punctuality target.

“I can safely say that we have succeeded. We are still far from world class, but [we are] not a company about to collapse . ”

Prasa’s mission, Montana said, was to drive the modernisation of the railways. Trains are, on average, 40 years old.

“We have come to the end of the life cycle of our assets.”

Montana said Prasa would need 560 new coaches over the next 10 to 12 years.