Symptoms of railway reform and functions falling to ‘local’ transport authorities

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“…a train is an extraordinary bunch of relations because it is something through which one goes, it is something which one can go from one point to another, and it is also something that goes by.” – Foucault and Miscowiec, 1986.

To start with, guided transport in South Africa is gripped and dribbled in what we call “rail transport”. Which symbolically represents the practice and density of the present and future of access and mobility through this traditionally capital intensive, and inherently fixed line of infrastructure. Whether it is for passenger or freight transportation, the train is a dynamic experience for all who use, witness, hear and hear of it.

Bad business passenger rail

Passenger rail in South Africa has evolved from being a highly protected mode through regulating road transportation, and serving as a backbone for sustaining the displacement of communities. It is now driven and managed by an agency of the people, which has suffered the consequences of poor economic regulation, ethics of care and procurement policies against the backdrop of rent-seeking behaviour (i.e. corruption). It has now come to an extent that Metrorail, a subsidiary of the Passenger Rail Agency South Africa, has had the hardest time climbing out of its ambitions to reduce its subsidy needs, although it receives the lowest subsidy per passenger (not passenger-km). Metrorail, and Shosholoza-Meyl are hanging on a thin leash when the function is held at national level–even with the new trainsets yet to be deployed.

Uncompetitive freight rail

Freight rail in South Africa has also been gripped by the same deregulatory narrative which has kept it below its inherent potential, unlike in the pre-70’s era, where it was strongly reinforced as the primary mode for major consignments. Today, the logistics hubs seem to float with gradually improving systems, but far from competitive services and contemporary systems that could outpace road freight transport. Today, freight transport operations seem to be leaning more aggressively toward traditional supply-side economics with respect to limited capacity and investing in a responsiveness to market demand. Freight rail is highly favourable for any freight forwarder, but it is disintegrated from the broad freight mobility network, and facilities—unless if you’ve justified a private siding.

Whether it is a passenger train, or a freight train, it remains a fascinating metallic beast alive and robust bearing various types of functions in the minds and hearts of families, industries and policy makers alike. As it transports households between urban and regional destinations, it also offers employment in operations and new industrial capacity to manufacture our own. From a policy making perspective , it is one of those few places in which new ideas on the future of this infrastructure, service and system can be provided for.

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Localising the rail transport function could bring pride back

Localising the rail transport function, at least at Provincial level provides much greater room to navigate and respond to pressing rail transport planning, management, operations, safety and enforcement needs. It is a capital systems management problem worth solving in order to fast-track the delivery of services that can be fast-tracked, in addition to increasing the rate at which new ideas can be tested and streamlined.

In other words, when transportation functions are closer to where services are delivered communities and municipalities alike have access to much greater responsiveness to their issues, and norms and standards become much more effectively monitored. Most importantly, planning does not happen for the sake of planning anymore, and the economics of passenger and freight rail in related municipalities develops a much richer vocabulary in terms of executing projects, generating revenue, attracting investment, and integrating modes. Internationally, the conflicts and debates revolve around ring-fencing local taxes, revenues; setting appropriate regulations for the ownership, partnership, operation and maintenance of railways and rolling-stock; and the economics in between.

To localise the function, entities need to be formed and communities served

A prerequisite for this is some type of transport authority at municipal level which could appropriately reflect the much needed transport-land-use integration coordination needs within its jurisdiction and relevant adjacent municipalities. eThekwini, and the City of Cape Town have done some interesting policy development work to ensure that this happens. The City of Cape Town’s Transport Development Agency is rather unique as an authority constitutionalised through a series of principles. Gauteng’s forthcoming Provincial authority may enable effective formulations of more municipal level authorities (i.e. district and city level). However, Provincially the CoCT has fought the good fight to formulate policy systems that pull functions toward them—which is a massive undertaking for a Province. In our work at the North-West Province, we have noticed that just pulling these functions down is not only a policy formulation issue, but a question of municipal buy-in in general.

Making entrepreneurial provisions in policy formulation does not only contribute to opportunity generation, but also to institutional efficiency when confronted with ideas, services and opportunities that are not in policies.

For passenger and freight rail services and systems to be functional to their immediate communities there needs to be a component, a place, a building, in which people with the appropriate expertise and conviction can be found. This is where the Western Cape Rail Transport Act of 2019 truly shines bright as day—even with its imperfections, as it aims to:

It is an effort from the province to take some functions and ask for the pressure groups, stakeholders and practitioners to take time out of their busy days to comment on this policy. To reform the national railways, it takes the extraordinary bunch of relations which do constitute a train to have their inputs consolidated and participation effected. Here are my comments below.

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Summary of Comments on the Western Cape Rail Transport Act of 2019 (Bill currently)

Overview

This Bill is an important part of the devotion of transportation functions from national to provincial spheres of government. It is a crucial point of departure as it establishes the appropriate components to host the functions which the Province envisions responsibility for. It establishes an overarching Rail Committee to provide oversight and alignment with the various stakeholders at national, enforcement, policing, municipal, related entities and regulatory bodies. This seems to enable liaison between various government departments for the effective implementation of the policy in a manner that is consistent with key stakeholders.

Tactical Dimensions

Tactically, the Bill proposes a Rail Unit which is envisioned to drive the tactical practices underpinning the decisions and developments of the Rail Committee. The Rail Unit coordinates the development, implementation and monitoring of the devolved rail transport functions through building capacity, monitoring compliance, safety and the performance of the operators. A core dynamic behind this unit is that it is comprised of individuals with “specialised knowledge of, or training, or experience in, rail services and safe rail operations”. Through this composition, the Bill contemplate that this team will identify issues on the ground through various mechanisms and recommend appropriate interventions. Operationally, the Bill contemplates how information systems, transportation planning, inspectorates and general provisions are treated.


Behind the guitar is a lesson tightly taut by tuning, harmony and integration. Similarly, the formation of policies should be based on anticipation and much less about reaction. Making entrepreneurial provisions in policy formulation does not only contribute to opportunity generation, but also to institutional efficiency when confronted with ideas, services and opportunities that are not in policies. In this sense, sensing the contrasts Jack Mapanje describes in his poetic discourse on rail transport service design in the South and the West is quite revealing. It’s a Weltanschauungen, or world view, issue which takes much more time and attention to reform, but it is plausible to re-evaluate the order of policy thought and practice to move from reactivate to activating.


Limitations

Its biggest limitation is the strong focus on passenger rail transport services (which is understandable, although probably short-sighted), over rail transport in terms of passenger and freight rail. Its second limitation is that modal integration is not a central theme in the Bill; and the limited account of digitisation and technologies seem to be unmentioned in this Bill. This is especially important for regulating systems and services which may need to be developed internally, or those that are developed by private entities with regard to rail transport services (i.e. their evaluation, approval, authentication and service level).


*Currently the Western Cape Rail Transport Act of 2019 is a Bill. Closing dates for comments is 15 May 2019. My full comments on this Bill are available on request. 

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