SEÁN MULLER: Rapid rail links bypass the real issues
THE flirtation with high- speed rail is a symptom of the government’s preference for trying to solve simple but fundamental socioeconomic problems with high-profile, over-hyped projects that bypass — in the Gautrain’s case, geographically as well as metaphorically — the real issues.
When the Gautrain was proposed, the (now inflated) cost was in the vicinity of R8bn-R15bn, with projections of about 100000 passengers a day. Contrast this with the R1bn that was allocated annually to the entire Metrorail system at the time, which is already carrying more than 2-million commuters daily. What is the argument for value per passenger here, never mind the overall socioeconomic impact? Despite efforts to put a glossy sheen on projects such as the Gautrain and the World Cup, their socioeconomic benefits remain questionable.
The primary existing problems with passenger rail include security, reliability, capacity, accessibility and quality (of infrastructure and service). These are serious problems for existing commuters, and are the main barriers to attracting wealthier passengers out of their motor vehicles.
The historical lack of appetite to tackle these problems is obvious: for example, on the security front it took a court ruling to force the government to put barely adequate security back on the trains, although we could employ about 50000 additional security guards for a comparatively small R1,8bn over 10 years to achieve this.
Improving capacity requires investing in new, as well as replacing existing, rolling stock. This must involve expanding local maintenance and manufacturing capacity, which in turn requires long-term commitment to timetables of repair and replacement. Accessibility requires better integration with, and improvement of, feeder systems such as buses and taxis, and may also include increased secure parking for wealthier passengers or the extension and improvement of feeder routes into wealthier areas.
Improving the reliability and quality of the service necessitates a whole host of measures, including investment in personnel training, upgrading aspects of the basic infrastructure (switching, for instance) and improvements at stations.
Notice that the issue of speed is nowhere on this shopping list of improvements. Yes, faster trains would somewhat ease capacity issues and reduce people’s overall time commuting, but these benefits are insignificant relative to the scale of the existing failures. Further , we have not even touched on the failures relating to social integration — these are compounded by Gautrain-style projects.
To its credit, the newly constituted Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) has shown signs that it understands the nature of the challenges and measures required to fix them. Yet President Jacob Zuma and Transport Minister Sbu Ndebele have said the government is investigating a national high-speed rail network, starting with a commuter link between Durban and Johannesburg. The motivation comes from China’s plan for a high-speed network, but there are a host of differences between our countries that make such analogies embarrassing.
China has a huge population and higher population density, the scale and industrial capacity to develop its own high-speed rail industry, an expanding rail network and an economy that is already moving like a high-speed train. By contrast, SA has a relatively small, dispersed population; in rail and other areas we have almost been de-industrialising; the rail network we have has been rapidly rolled back over recent decades, with many lines now going literally to seed; and the economy is growing sluggishly.
There is no honest and convincing argument for any high-speed rail in this country, nor will there be for at least a few decades.
Nevertheless, it seems that the government wants to spend vast sums of money for costly private-sector competence, import foreign equipment and expertise we will never bother to produce ourselves, and spin the supposed benefits of fundamentally elitist projects, rather than make the effort to get competent government structures and intermediate industries in place that will be capable of tackling the real problems.
- Muller lectures economics at the University of Cape Town.
And here is a comment from one of the reader, Ntja;