Durban – KwaZulu-Natal’s legislature’s finance portfolio committee has rejected a proposal for massive construction of a new railway line to be exclusively used by a long-overdue hi-tech business train to operate between Pietermaritzburg and Durban.
The Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) has approached the provincial cabinet requesting funding for the project that might cost taxpayers billions of rand. However, the finance portfolio committee has rejected the project as a luxury and not a necessity for the cash-strapped province.
The business train, which has a bar, restaurant and fitted with wi-fi, was mooted in 2009 and launched in 2014 with a promise that it was going to start operating fully in 2016.
It was acquired at a cost of about R60 million, but it has been gathering dust at the Durban Station because the current mainline from Durban to Joburg via Pietermaritzburg is not conducive for it.
The Independent Media’s Investigations Unit learnt about Prasa’s plea for provincial government funding when it was questioning its spokesperson Zama Nomnganga about the stalled project.
On hearing about Prasa’s proposal, provincial finance portfolio committee chairperson Sipho “KK” Nkosi expressed shock, saying that the committee had never been informed about the idea.
He said it was impractical since the government’s coffers were running dry. He said since Prasa was a national entity, it should have approached the national Treasurer for funds.
“Unless we are told otherwise, I don’t think that the province has even a cent to spend on that initiative.
“If money can be raised in whatever way, we would not be against that but if then people would expect funds from the provincial fiscus, I doubt the possibility of that,” he said.
He predicted the construction of the railway could run up to billions of rand since it would require engineers to conduct massive feasibility studies before the actual construction.
Nomnganga said only the feasibility studies would determine the cost. He said Prasa had sold the idea to the provincial cabinet lekgotla and was waiting to discuss it with the government.
Nomnganga said the new line would have to either run at an overhead level or via tunnels bored through mountains for it to be at a flat level that would allow the train to run at the “highest” speed.
“We need to sit down with government because there should either be a provincial or national government investment, but the priority should come from the government.
“We made presentations at the provincial government lekgotla and we are still waiting for the discussions,” added Nomnganga.
Provincial transport said the turbo train was “very much on our agenda”, and that it was currently looking for ways to raise funds for the project.
According to Nomnganga, about R7 million has already been spent reshaping the Pietermaritzburg Station to suit the new train.
The train was meant to relieve the N3 highway, between the cities, from traffic congestion, which has been worsened by the growing high volume of trucks.
It was initially reported that there would be two trains, but Nomnganga said currently there is one. He said he did not envisage that the train would be in operation for the next two years.
“Our engineers still have to do feasibility studies to see how we can build our own line, which would either be going underground or run on top of the mountains as we need efficiency because normal railway lines are not suitable,” he said. He said the train needed a dedicated line, “which would be specially built just like Gautrain to make sure that it runs at a certain speed”.
He said to attract passengers who were rushing to work, the train should surpass the speed of a car, which takes 45 minutes from Durban to Pietermaritzburg.
With the old line, it was predicted that the train would take about 90 minutes to reach its destination, but with the proposed new line, it would take even less.
“The train should take at least 30 minutes,” he said.
KZN Transport spokesperson Kwanele Ncalane said the government had assembled a task team, which involved Prasa, to deal with the matter.
“According to the recent indications this might require lots of money, and the government is currently discussing and deliberating on ways of sourcing funding for it. MEC (Bheki Ntuli) is very much passionate about it, and he has called for an improved pace in terms of the engagements and finalisation of the assessment and everything so that we know which stage we are in and what we are dealing with,” said Ncalane.
Head of civil engineering studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Professor Mohamed Mostafa said the construction was possible but might be expensive.
He said the country has engineering knowledge and tools for the work.
“There is always a solution, which comes with its own costs,” said Mostafa.
Another engineering expert who asked for his name and that of his Durban-based company to be withheld also raised concerns about expenses that might be incurred.
“The project can be very complicated. You have to look at the pipeline, and mark the train route.
“There are lots of private properties along the route whose owners will have to be compensated,” said the engineer.
DA MPL and finance portfolio committee member Francois Rodgers flatly rejected the proposal.
“There is no way that we are going to be able to fund the project of that nature because, in fact, it is going to a very difficult time to keep the province afloat with budget cuts,” said Rodgers.
He described the train as a luxury rather than a necessity.