Mbalula criticises Treasury after unpaid power bill halts Western Cape trains
Transport minister Fikile Mbalula cut a frustrated figure at Cape Town station on Thursday evening as he attempted to explain why all trains in the Western Cape had been halted for the afternoon peak period, stranding almost 300,000 commuters.
The stoppage ended when the Passenger Rail Agency of SA paid Eskom R6.5m and the utility switched back on the electricity it had withdrawn from four substations that power Metrorail trains.
Addressing a hastily called media conference, Mbalula insisted he wasn’t pointing fingers — but he repeatedly criticised the National Treasury for what he called delays in authorising a transfer of funds from Prasa’s unspent capital budget to its threadbare operational account.
He also expressed frustration with finance minister Tito Mboweni’s announcement in his budget on Wednesday that funding for public transport, including Prasa, was being cut.
“I can’t be diplomatic when R13bn is being taken from public transport, when you take money from me while I’m bringing a semblance of stability to Prasa,” he said.
“I’m not the person who’s going to keep quiet. When there is a drought you need rain. The rain we need here is the rain of money.”
Mbalula pleaded for Prasa to be “treated with kid gloves” by the Treasury as the administrator he appointed in December to run the service, Bongisizwe Mpondo, implements a recovery plan.
The minister also aimed barbs at Eskom for its “unprecedented” decision to cut traction power to an entire province’s railway network.
“Other regions have not been subjected to a similar treatment,” he said. “Of equal concern is the fact that Eskom had declared Metrorail a priority user at the start of load-shedding.”
But he said Prasa’s recovery was “intrinsically linked to the National Treasury’s responsiveness to our representations”.
He added: “We remain hopeful that the detailed work we have done and the restructuring of the Prasa funding model we have presented to National Treasury will yield the desired results to turn Prasa around.
“The role of commuter rail as a mode of choice for the poorest of the poor remains at the centre of our transport policy. The trade-offs that we make as a country in the light of the dire economic climate must be responsible and not adversely affect the livelihoods of the poor who rely on public transport.”
Mbalula said he wanted to apologise to the commuters whose homeward journeys on Thursday were disrupted and delayed by the absence of trains for several hours.
The media conference was held in the deserted Shosholoza Meyl long-distance terminal at Cape Town station.
On February 18, the Railway Safety Regulator halted Shosholoza Meyl services countrywide, saying the Prasa subsidiary had contravened its temporary operating licence it was given by the railway safety regulator.
The contravention emerged in an investigation of a collision in Roodepoort between a Prasa train and a goods train a week earlier in which one person was killed and several were injured.