TRAXI Part Three: Looking towards 2050

JASPER COOK / When I was a child, many internal combustion engines had governors. They were simple devices, based on centrifugal force, installed to limit engines to a certain maximum speed to prevent them from over-revving and destroying themselves. Essentially, the purpose of government was the same: it was there to limit or prevent excesses. People were free to do what they liked, as long as their fun did not prevent others from doing what they liked. Once you spoil someone else’s fun, government steps in.

That has long changed, especially here in South Africa, to mean that government is a kind of Father Christmas, or Blesser, something that gives, rather than presides and tempers. People tend to vote for whomever is big on handouts: food parcels, income grants, cattle, or anything else, as long as it is free. We need reminding that governments, as happened in 1994, come and go.

Generations and change

When they do, a lot changes with them. Public transport will change radically between now and 2050. Take mail delivery, for example.

My mother grew up on a farm in the Kat River Valley. When she turned three, she was given the task of fetching the farm mail on horseback. She had to ride a mile or two to a wooden pillar at the side of the main road, where she left one leather mailbag of outgoing post for the post coach, and collected another. She could only reach the bags from the back of her horse, and it was tough work for her. The mailbag was not always light. It could have books and parcels as well as letters. She told me it didn’t always go well. Sometimes she dropped the bags. She then had to dismount, heft them to her shoulder, and remount. Not easy for a little girl. At that time, everyone in the Kat River Valley did everything on horseback, and that was how it was.

By contrast, growing up in PMB, I saw few horses, and could only dream of riding one. (Well, I eventually did. My uncle woke me at 04h30, and shouted “Gaan haal die skape”. Seated on the oldest, most docile horse, off I went, into the Vaalkop camp). In school, a few yers later, I was charmed to learn that one Afrikaans expression for being drunk was “hy jaag skape aan”. In my drinking years, I certainly came to understand that one. There was more such useful stuff to learn. “Te diep in die bottel gekyk”. Or, “Hy’t tiermelk gedrink”. But, uh, you see, this is what happens to me. Back to generations.

The next generation, my children, have sent and received very little real (“snail”) mail in their lifetimes. I did not spend as much time writing letters then as I do texting today, but we still spent a lot of time writing cards and letters, and got a lot of exercise walking to the mailbox to post them.

It was also common for people of my father’s generation to provide for a family of four children, a house and a car. By the time I started working, I needed a working wife to help afford the same. In his turn, my son can scarcely afford to get married, let alone have a child. Ok, I know, we always find a way. But you know what I mean. As I said, a lot can change in a generation.

For the sake of this discussion of trains and taxis, it appears that trains will change a lot between now and 2050, but not as much as taxis.

This article in the TRAXI series discusses passenger rail, and how its changes may play out in reality, despite the intentions set out in the White Paper. This mostly really means Port City to Inland City, although Light Rail will enter from the wings. More particularly, Light Rail will find its way into suburbs. Part Four will speculate on what may become of taxis.

Recall from Part One that TRAXI is a portmanteau of taxi and train. Starting with the present, we have no trains, so trains can only improve. As for taxis, I think they will have to get better too, or even change outright, but in terms of numbers, they may be at their height right now. Consensus is generally that too many taxi permits are being issued, so a shakeout is likely. One thing is certain: they will both come under the hammer of a new kid on the block, called Sustainable Development Goals. Out with the old. We can be sure that legislation against pollution will take aim at so called inter-city taxis, especially if there are safer, quicker, less polluting alternatives.

Parts One and Two show that taxis and trains tend to be mutually exclusive. The taxi industry believed it is in competition with intercity passenger rail, and set about destroying both it and commuter rail. For some examples of how this affected me, and mainline train travel, in four trips from Johannesburg to Cape Town over a period of less than a decade, we enjoyed good travel, near enough on time until the section between Worcester and Paarl. Always close to Malmesbury, and usually closer to Gouda, our train would stop at a signal in “the middle of nowhere”, and sit, and sit.

On two of these trains, our train manager (a lady once, and a gent once) told me that a warning had been phoned in about a bomb on the tracks. We were not allowed to proceed until the bomb threat had cleared. I was pretty vigilant on all of these trips, because it’s a nice time of day. I never once saw anything or anybody scanning the track ahead of us. Perhaps the precise location of the bomb was given on the telephone? I don’t know. But on all four trips we were delayed for two hours. When this happens four times out of four, it becomes like “standard practice”. It went on for decades, and everybody just put up with it. Now, they don’t need to, with the perfect solution: no trains, no bombs.

Some questions

Forget about my anecdotes, though. How about some questions:

Q: How many railway coaches have been burned countrywide since 2014? A:  214

Q: How many people have been arrested for train arson? A: 2 (both minors, one 14, one 15)

People have been burning carriages for  about a decade, and all they can find are two minors? Best efforts of SAPS and the safety regulator. Sweet. Guess who is permanently Out To Lunch. Oh, and okay, there is one train running, but not all the way. All aboard for Queenstown. Sorry we can’t get all the way to East London, but the railways from Queenstown onward have been stolen. (see edit at the end of this article).

Already in some parts of the world, cameras, drones and other forms of surveillance tend to make bomb threats unlikely, and our future railway line construction will have to include as many safety and security measures as possible, because we have weirdly destructive people. Next time you pass a train, check the locomotive windows. In some areas, they are protected with a steel mesh, not against burglars, but because one of our national pastimes is throwing stones at trains, and naturally the biggest prize is to hit the engine driver, or at least his window. Our natural born cowards know that a train does not stop easily, and they have all the time in the world to get away. On my commute on the Simon’s Town line, I was twice narrowly missed by a stone thrown by young boys not far from the track. Both times I saw the thrower. Neither fled. Instead, they stood there and admired their handiwork.

More questions. In South Africa, in the next half century:

Q: How much faster will passenger rail safely become? A: Up to 230 kph faster than the current 90kph.

Light Rail

Light rail is considered a new mode of transport. Little is known about it in South Africa. It is an evolution of street cars and trams. Some would say it’s no more than a tram system, but there is at least one difference: light rail has no drivers. It also does not usually share streets with motor vehicles. Its passenger carriages are lighter and smaller than those of commuter rail, although it typically runs on Standard Gauge tracks, which are designed to prevent anything falling on them. In the Montreal system, access to trains is unlike ours. Access to trains is controlled via (usually glass) walls, with sliding doors. The doors open only when a train is berthed at the platform, and the space between the train and the wall is too little to allow access to people.

So, it is nearly impossible to throw anything on the track, including oneself. Many sections are built above ground, on something like concrete viaducts, unconstrained, as buses are and trams can be, by traffic jams. They are typically in place for much shorter distances than metro and underground systems. They accelerate fast, stop quickly, and their stations look more  like Johannesburg’s Rea Vaya stops. They are generally smaller and closer to walk to than those of metro systems.

They are powered by electricity only: there are no diesels or other polluting variants. It is for this last reason, and because they are four times less polluting and four times more economical than the next-least polluting transport mode, that they will reduce the number of inner-city road vehicles when Sustainable Development Goals are met. That means the numbers of inner city private cars as well as taxis will reduce. Even electric buses are less efficient than rail, because rubber tyres produce more rolling resistance than steel wheels on steel rails. By 2050, only non-polluting vehicles will be allowed in urban areas. This means that all city cars, taxis and buses will be electric, fuel-cell or hydrogen powered. Consider that in Japan you may not buy a car unless you have bought a parking place first. That level of control is likely to apply in our cities: fossil fuel vehicles will be licensed out of existence except for special uses.

Expect Light Rail to gradually replace most taxi routes. There is no other way to meet global warming and pollution goals. As for main line passenger rail, the White Paper reveals that passenger routes going forward will be rebuilt to Standard Gauge, and will travel at speeds of not less than 160 kph. That is considered to be “Higher Speed” rail. The next level of main line travel will be “High Speed” rail, which, like the Japanese bullet trains and the French TGV, will travel at up to 320 kph. In old terms, these are 100 and 200 mph respectively.

Bean counters don’t change

My predictions? Bean counters don’t change. They have historically been very nervous about infrastructure investments in rail. Take the British HST (High Speed Train). Its budgets have soared from highs to lows to highs and back again, currently languishing on the table as a service between London and Birmingham only. Lest you think that I tend to be too hard on SA planners, please know that Britain’s fickleness in the face of this scale of planning is as silly as it gets. There is no point in putting HST in place over a distance like that. It will not save enough time to justify the expense, compared to a longer distance like London to Edinburgh. Currently, train is already the cheapest way to get to Birmingham from London, and takes roughly an hour and a quarter. The HST will be perhaps half an hour faster than current trip time. Both cities are high population density areas, and this is where the bean counters feel they are safe: they know they will fill trains, and that is all they care about.

Population density is critical to passenger rail investment. In fact, in the cold light of day, connecting apartheid-style township nodes with one another is a risk for the very reason that places like Soweto, Thokoza, Mamelodi and so on are not high rise.  They are overwhelmingly single storey dwellings. That, straight away, will find bean counters popping tranquilisers. Our situation is different. We will be pressured by carbon imperatives, not workforce mobility. If anything, working from home will increase, especially when electricity is no longer a problem. Air travel pollutes, and our constraint will be about attracting riders to fast trains in place of flying. Johannesburg to Durban is about the same distance as Paris to Bordeaux. I did that trip in 3½ hours, 30 years ago. The last trip the Trans-Natal made took just under14 hours. Even Queensland Rail does Rockhampton to Brisbane, also much the same distance, in seven hrs, and that is on Cape Gauge, not Standard Gauge.

Australia is not big on quick trains. Queensland Rail’s tilting trains are the fastest in Australia, and run on Cape Gauge, the same as Transnet and PRASA. They operate at the same speed as Gautrain. Imagine a sleeper train from Johannesburg to Durban, leaving at midnight and arriving at 07:00. That is achievable on Cape Gauge, but not on the existing track. Higher speed will demand tunnels and bridges all the way, straightening curves and reducing gradients. Breakfast on a TGV type high speed train from Johannesburg will get us to lunch in Durban easily. Or leaving after lunch will get us to our hotel in Durban in time for supper. Who will want to fly?

No matter what the Rail White Paper says, will the bean counters fall for it? Hmmm. They will have to, but will run hot and cold on it. They are a fearful bunch. Take the Hex River Tunnel as one example. Quoting Wikipedia,

“The original line between Cape Town and Wellington was laid to 4 ft 81⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge, but this gauge could not be accommodated economically on the tight curves required by the proposed Hex River rail pass. This led to a decision by the CGR to use a narrower gauge of 3 ft 6 inches (1,067 mm) across the pass. After initially making use of dual gauge, it was decided in 1873 to convert all existing trackage of the CGR to this narrower gauge that was eventually to become known throughout Africa as Cape Gauge. Credit for the fact that most of the present day railway lines in Africa are Cape gauge can therefore be directly attributed to the Hex River rail pass.”

There you have it. Bean counters made us, and most of Africa, adopt Cape Gauge. You could claim it served a purpose, but everywhere the tendency is to start again and rebuild, as the White Paper outlines,  to Standard Gauge. Kenya has a Standard Gauge line from Mombasa to Nairobi. Everybody now knows that the bean counters screwed up royally, and Cape Gauge was a disastrous mistake. It makes the bean counters way more expensive than they themselves could possibly have foreseen. Beware of them. They didn’t want to pay for Standard Gauge then and they won’t want to pay for it in the future. The thing is, they will have to.  Not only did they go for an insecure engineering option with Cape Gauge, they also huffed and puffed and faffed, such that the Hex River Tunnels took four decades to complete. Four tunnels were approved in 1946. Work was suspended and deferred three times: in 1950 to 1965, 1966 to 1976, 1979 to 1988 and the tunnels were finally completed in a last gasp in 1989.

Deadly diesel

Nobody ever thinks to tot up what useless accountants cost in their hesitance, how much Standard Gauge would have earned us compared to Cape Gauge, in terms of distance, fossil fuel and time saved.  Even though rail is the most economical transport mode when it comes to fossil fuel, there are other factors. Foreign exchange is one of them. Deep in apartheid, when sanctions were biting, there were high level talks about reverting to steam traction, because diesel is imported and costs foreign exchange, whereas we have a couple of centuries worth of coal underground, and we had hundreds of steam locomotives mothballed in sidings all over the country. When you think today about Eskom burning diesel to keep the lights on, think about that. The foreign exchange must be eye-watering. Does the government care? Apparently, not much. One of our cabinet ministers sold the entire country’s fuel reserves in a single day, was conned, and re-purchased the lot at a loss. You can’t make this sort of story up.

It is enough to say that South African rail has a tortured history with diesel. When it was first introduced, SAR continued the steam tradition with diesel, in that it trained its own diesel fitters, who worked out of diesel sheds all over the country. Because of this, delays when diesels failed were sorted out within hours, plus there were always spare locomotives around waiting to be rushed to a train that was struggling. Both of these facts changed in time. Some idiot damager, possibly an MBA or an Affirmative Action appointment, wanted desperately to show a profit in his time at Spoornet. He did this by selling every locomotive, goods wagon, railway coach, and everything else he could lay his cheap brain on, and even leasing 18 or so diesel locomotives to Sudan Railways. That meant we had no spare diesel traction. He or someone did not think that was enough, and then set about disbanding our diesel maintenance components, too. This genius (never forget that Lucky Montana called his chief engineer a genius: it didn’t help – the guy messed up totally, cost billions, and had to be sacked) then squared a maintenance contract deal with General Electric whereby all the maintenance on our diesel fleet was to be done by flying diesel engineers from the US to South Africa, whenever a diesel locomotive failed.

Instead of a few hours delay while a unit was taken to a nearby shop for repairs, a whole process was set in place. Requisitions, documents, authorisations, the whole catastrophe, culminating days later in a man or men boarding an aircraft in the US and arriving jet-lagged in South Africa, then taken by vehicle to where the dead locomotive was quietly rusting in some workshop. As happens with this sort of thing, that American did not stay in a three-star hotel. Oh no. It was always the best and most expensive. Added to the bill for spares (also flown over from the US), were these astronomical costs for five-star wine and dine luxury. The result was that diesel traction ended up more expensive than steam, and less reliable statistically. You won’t find too many old-timers admitting this these days, but it was common talk among locomotive running staff. As with our national fuel stock sale, you can’t make this sort of thing up.

The longest delay I ever suffered, arriving eleven hours late at Park Station, was because my train was pulled by only one diesel locomotive, instead of the customary two, and it failed, in the Karoo near Orange River. A replacement had to be found. That took some hours. Then it had to be make the trip from PE to us as we sat and baked in the Karoo. When it arrived, it had to leap through some complex shunting hoops to get the dead locomotive off our train and into another siding, and only after seven hours did we continue on to Johanesburg. As is usually the case, and in the words of one of my shipping bosses, “When something goes wrong, it will then go wrong all the way down the line”.

Having messed up the entire Karoo and Free State train schedule, we were serially delayed at every opportunity, standing silent in various sections for hours. Wolvefontein, I really feel I know you. Then we arrived in the evening rush hour, and sat motionless in a Soweto commuter station for more hours, waiting to be slotted into Park Station. By then, we were pulled by electric traction, but the damage was already done. Actually, we may have been 14 hours late. I can’t remember for sure. Starting at Randfontein, the entire train staff began to bail. By the time we left Soweto, they had all deserted. Even the train manager had gone home (or hid in his compartment: I knocked and knocked). There was no food, water or anything to be had on the train. Bedding was left in the compartments. What a sorry mess. A fish rots from the head, and that was all the fault of one deranged CEO who wanted to show a profit. No wonder Ricardo Semler would not allow MBA graduates to work in his business without supervision. This is what happens when you get a turkey who has never been on a train in his life to be the CEO of a railway.

Any traction to do with diesel will come under pressure to be replaced. This is not only a matter of foreign exchange – it’s all about carbon. Maybe hydrogen will replace oil. There are hydrogen trains and buses operating here and there in the world, and we will soon join the queue.

Springbokke, Nuclear, a Karoo Boy & Mr Kumalo

Some rugby commentators, reflecting on the Bokke lifting the World Cup, agreed on YouTube that, though it was a surprise that they won, the Springboks “can really play”. They all felt our team should not have won against England, France and the All Blacks in the final. And yet, as one said “they have a way of doing this, and they do it often”.

They remind me of nuclear power generation. It is so discredited, and so reviled, but the simple fact is that South Africa is the third oldest nuclear nation in the world, and has forged on through the decades ever since we started it in 1948, and our nuclear boffs have not been swayed from their course by politics, polls, green activists or anything else. Might as well get  used to it. We were world leaders with Pebble Bed, and that innovation continues. A lot of people will sigh a relief about nuclear eventually, because it is the one thing that will halt so-called load shedding, which is a fancy phrase for “power failure”, in its sorry tracks. If you listen to this Durban man, and this Karoo Boy, this will be obvious.

So, by 2050, nuclear in one or more of the five sites all over the country that have been approved for it, and in the six smaller sites planned for the Western Cape, will save the day, and with it, our prospects for Higher Speed Rail.  This will not be the two-bit dud that JZ wanted to foist on us, but something cheaper, better, smaller. JZ was at the end of a long queue when it came to nuclear. Lest he be forgotten, let’s pay our respects to Mr Kumalo, who picked up a degree in Nuclear Physics at Saskatchewan University, and returned home to apply himself to the betterment of his country. Sadly, the best that apartheid South Africa could come up with was an offer of a teaching job in Bantu Education at a salary of R55pm. Naturally, he found gainful employment somewhere else in the world. We lost him. Still, others have continued, heedless like a ratel, against all odds and punching well above their weight. While politicians dither and muck about with ship generation, diesel turbines and other panic measures, our nuclear experts like this Durban man, and this Karoo man, have adroitly side stepped the fuss and bother and are in place along with many other experts to rescue us. Just like the Bokke. We shouldn’t win this one, but we will.

My recollections of Lyall Watson, writing in Supernature of nuclear waste being 5000 times more potent that VX Nerve Gas, which is 5000 times more potent than cobra venom, no longer seem to apply.

Many of my generation knew there was a reactor in Congella, Durban, the first nuclear reactor in South Africa, which was installed in the early Fifties. This fact has been erased from history. You can google it all you like. I did, and found nothing. During the time I spent as a learner fireman in Durban, I often ran from Dalbridge to Greyville along the tracks when the trains were late, and I felt an eerie discomfort while running past Dalbridge and Congella. A lot of people complained of widespread illnesses in that locality, and laid the blame on that reactor. Will we ever really know?

Coffee and nuclear

Decades ago, a writer on management penned a chapter on office expenditure meetings. The fights and arguments over “which instant coffee to buy” consumed the most time in meetings, because everybody knows instant coffee, what it looks like, and what it costs. Huge budget items like solar power or escalators or IT are approved within minutes, because no matter how astronomically expensive they are, nobody understands enough about them to debate them. Nuclear power is like that. Nobody understands it, so they just say yes. They will quarrel forever, though, about which manager gets to park where, and the cost of the paint for  parking places.

So, nuclear will be approved, and our electricity woes will be long over by 2050, which means we can have all the electric trains we want if only the bean counters can stomach the infrastructure costs.

Building Rail

Rail was not always expensive, but then it was not always fast, either. In WW1, troops laid rail in  weeks. Rail only had to do what was difficult for mules: troops laid the track. Sophisticated labour was not needed. Back in the days of Natal Government Railways, there was a looming labour shortage for constructing the line from Durban to the Reef. Cetshwayo, then Paramount Chief of Zululand, was approached. Colonial government did not want to compromise farm labour, and the Chief was asked if he could find labour for the railways. He did. A sum of about £5500 was given to him by the British government for the purpose. This was in the late 1800s,  and that would amount to billions of rands today. In time, it turned out that Cetshwayo had basically sold an entire sub-tribe into labour. The rail workers then drew enough money only to pay for a wife and a little more, and when the work was finished, only £2200 had been withdrawn from the account. The remaining £3300  was left for Cetshwayo. As the historian wrote: Cetshwayo did very well out of railways!

In the Natal I grew up in, both North and South Coast sugar farms had their own railways, quite a vast network, supplying cane to a few sugar mills. It was not a high-tech undertaking, even back then. By the 1970s, most sugar freight was carried by road, often tractor-pulled, slowing us down, and strewing our roads with cane stalks and potholes.

Today, laying high-speed track is unlikely to cost less than half a billion rand per kilometre. Nobody is going to want to cough that up. Historically, as pointed out above, it is just one of those things that bean counters lack the will to do. They don’t mind building bridges for highways that end in mid-air in Cape Town, but they don’t want to spend anything on rail. So my prediction is that the money for Higher Speed rail will be found, but not for bullet train style High Speed. The bean counters will consider that a win.

POSTSCRIPT: The fateful resumption of Shosholoza Meyl

In early December, PRASA announced that it would reintroduce some mainline train services –notably the Shosholoza Meyl — in time for the Christmas holidays. One would have though they’d fix the Shosholoza Meyl website as well, but no such luck — when I went there, it still said “Under Construction”. More recently, it began to function, with its home page stating rather grandly: ‘Welcome to a pleasant experience: Shosholoza Meyl promises that each of our passengers will be treated to “A Pleasant Experience” from the moment they book and buy their ticket throughout their journey by train until they disembark at their end destination.’ This is followed by a BOOK NOW button, which remains as dead as a dodo. Well, I suppose you can’t have everything.

There is also a bookings section on the PRASA website, but trust me, it’s a rabbit hole. Nothing seems to work.

Anyway, by now we all know that things didn’t quite work out that way. On 7 December, the Shosholoza Meyl left Park Station in Johannesburg for the first time since 2021. Passengers might have had a pleasant experience, but they certainly did not reach their end destination. At Wellington, some 75 kilometres, from Cape Town, they had to disembark and be taken the rest of the way by bus, because the overhead power cables between Kaalfontein and Muldersvlei had been stolen. Read the Cape Times report here. No further comment needed.

FEATURE IMAGE: A PRASA image of Shosholoza Meyl train sets in Johannesburg. The resurrection of this service in December 2023 did little to bolster confidence in PRASA’s capacity to utilise the future potential of rail.

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