Wednesday, August 4, 2010

SEÁN MULLER: Rapid rail links bypass the real issues

Ahhh, Sean Muller could not have said it better when he argues recently on the Business Day that Gautrain discourages social integration between the haves and the haves not. Related post written by me is found here

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

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;

The Gautrain is a good attempt at addressing Gauteng’s unique public transport needs. Due to Gauteng’s urban sprawl speed is a consideration in “shrinking” the distances between the Gauteng’s stops and encouraging the upper classes from out of their cars. The Gautrain should also help address some of this sprawl by encouraging densification in areas adjacent to stations. I actually think that the Gautrain represents an opportunity to improve on South Africa’s current social integration landscape where the upper classes keep themselves cocooned in their cars from their remote access garage doors to the boomed off parking at work. Even if one considered the Gautrain’s ridership to be entirely privileged there will be more opportunities for social integration at nodes where the Gautrain interacts with other modes of transport (metrorail, rea vaya), in public places and pavements as all classes complete the last section of their daily commute on foot.

Currently upper middle class South Africa doesn’t use public transport at all. I think it is unfair to suggest that government has totally ignored the latent potential in metrorail to provide a more efficient and effective commuter rail service. Government has been late in acting on this but since the formation of prasa in 2009 R25bn has been allocated to rail improvement projects over 3 years, incidentally a figure similar to the Gautrain’s price tag. Much of the current state of rail in South Africa is due to a legacy of bad planning and management as you rightly point out. I agree with all your points in trying to improve on this situation. There are also the technical limitations of cape guage track, the betamax of rail technology. I will resist a technical diatribe. Almost all of South Africas existing rail network is built on this standard. This standard is slower, has les payload and it is more expensive and difficult to service and acquiring rolling stock for as it only used in 17% of the world’s railways. If you’re going to build a new rail link; it has to be on standard gauge for sustainability considerations ( the Gautrain runs on standard gauge).

It has been estimated that it would cost South Africa R800bn to upgrade the existing rail infrastructure to standard gauge. It is time someone made some really hard decisions as persisting with standard gauge infrastructure is likely to cost even more with each passing year. It is time to set in motion an incremental upgrade of our railway infrastructure. This brings me also to the mooted high speed link between Durban and Johannesburg. This may be inspired by commuter rail links in China but in statements coming out of prasa and government it is quite obvious that no one is naively talking about a country wide high speed commuter rail link with links between Kroonstad and Welkom, for example.

Durban and Johannesburg are two of our countries most populous cities. There is high daily road based traffic between the two cities. In a statement on the pre feasibility study on the link Lucky Montana of prasa stated that the link would only be viable as a combined commuter and freight link. This makes sense especially when considering plans to increase capacity at Durban’s harbour. Speed would also help in improving competitiveness. Government and prasa should, in fact, be commended for showing foresight; an element which has been missing in management of South Africas rail infrastructure. To say that there will be no convincing argument for highspeed rail in this country for several decades grossly simplifies things. It is easy to dismiss the Gautrain project as a a vanity project for the rich when it is viewed in isolation. When you look at the Gautrain as a fast and efficient link between Gauteng’s hubs of economic activity ,a counter to congestion hotspots and the backbone of a broader more integrated public transport solution its easy to see its value and accessibility to all sectors of the public.

As early as next year, for example, a resident of Soweto travelling to Tshwane in the morning will be able to do so by taking the Rea Vaya bus to Braamfontein and connecting to the Gautrain to complete the journey. I already know someone who lives in Thembisa and travels to Sandton by connecting via the Rhodesfield station. Justifying the cost of anything is a common subject in the south African debate. People are never going to agree on the price point for any intervention and several “real issues” are always cited as places where funds could be better spent. The reality is that we are inefficient in spending money in many of these “real” problems and also we shouldn’t neglect other arrears of improving our economic and social landscape. The ability to integrate the Gautrain with other forms of public transport is how the service will ultimately fail or help the broader public.

There are signs that the Gauteng government recognises this. Its too early to pass that judgement. My fear is that, when phase 2 of the Gautrain is complete it will be oversubscribed. People underestimate the sheer horror of the Tshwane/Midrand/ Joburg commute. Already the initial number coming from mbombela for phase one are several times more than the initial estimates.

No comments: