Railways AfricaTM

Issue: 3 - 2017

I am going to start this issue with a bit of activism – and ask that you indulge me somewhat.

The theme of my advocacy is public transport, a topic that is currently at the forefront civil society and government agendas, both in South Africa and across the African continent, at present.

In South Africa, effective utilisation of public rail transport - be it the government subsidised passenger services offered throughout the country by the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) or the high-end Gautrain rapid rail transit system in Gauteng - hinges on effective first and last mile solutions. “Solving the first and last mile” is a topic that continues to gain worldwide coverage in the passenger rail arena, but one that seems to spark some very irrational thinking in the African market.

While passenger rail remains the gambit of government subsidised services – the first and last mile is subject to the principles of free market. Much like the ability to choose from which supermarket we buy our daily bread, we - as the consumer - have a choice as to which operator we would prefer to use to get us to and from train stations, be it a Gautrain bus, a private car, an Uber or a metered taxi. It is, after all, the consumer’s hard-earned cash, and therefore their choice as to which method to use.

Headlines such as "Uber is killing us" and “Uber will burn" paints a very concerning picture – where some players within the public transport sector believe that they are entitled to a protectionist government entrenching their market share under threat of civil disobedience and violence. This is – in my view – is a very short step away from the dictatorial policies that have been the downfall of human rights and outrageous abuses of authority in countries, but this is not the time for a history lesson.

Privately-run public transport is a profit-driven business and therefore should be subject to the same free market principles that are upheld by any market-driven economy. The pivotal point of the free market approach is choice – the consumer’s right to choose their service provider, and a service provider’s ability to choose what services they would like to offer. A metered taxi driver can certainly become an Uber driver, so long as they qualify for the position. A minibus taxi driver can apply to become a bus driver for a Bus Rapid Transit service, so long as they hold the correct credentials.

Every player in the industry has the right to choose how they wish to engage with passengers, and every passenger has the right to choose with whom they wish to engage.

This is how we build business, create opportunities and move forward in a modern economy.

Healthy competition drives growth, development and innovation – the backbone of a healthy economy. Protectionism drives stagnation, complacency and the corrupt business practices that have for far too long hampered growth and development in Africa. No one service provider should enjoy protection over another – be it from a government agency, legislative policy and - most especially - not because both government and civil society are blackmailed into supporting the interests of one party through threats of violence. We are all subject to the universally adopted principles of law and order – and no government that wishes to be taken seriously by the international community should negotiate with terrorists.

To illustrate my argument, a number of agents that purportedly represent the metered taxi industry recently decided to close off routes to O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, causing chaos at Gautrain stations and seriously disrupting day-to-day activities across one of the country’s most critical business hubs. Their intent - to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with Uber, the internationally renowned "new-kid-on-the-block" in transport solutions. As Uber has gained market share (and created thousands of independent, tax-paying, small business owners in the process), meter taxi drivers have taken it upon themselves to violently enforce their perceived right to monopolise the passenger-car taxi industry.

According to recent reports, assailants identifying themselves as meter taxi drivers have burned vehicles belonging to Uber drivers, attacked potential Uber customers and threatened the lives of drivers with fatalities I might add!. These meter taxi drivers have decided that, despite minor barriers such as the constitution, they have the right hold civil society to ransom in a bid to have their market share protected from the healthy competition introduced by Uber. One has to wonder what would happen if they channelled their apparently abundant energies into coming up with an innovative, improved business model to win back their market share instead of resorting to violence and law-breaking.

I had the misfortune of experiencing this phenomenon with my family on Mother’s Day, and therefore have first-hand experience of the illegal, strong-arm tactics being employed by some in the meter taxi industry. Having enjoyed a wonderful day out to Magaliesburg via steam with Reef Steamers, we arrived at Johannesburg’s Park station just after 18:00. We walked from the PRASA Park station through to Gautrain Park station (based on my husband's insistence on experiencing intermodality between operators). From where we ordered our Uber. A few moments later, the Uber arrived and as we departed the safety of Gautrain's station parking we were accosted by metered taxis drivers. Our Uber driver beat a hasty retreat – reversing as fast as possible back towards the perceived safety of the Gautrain station. Unfortunately, while the Gautrain hinges a lot of their marketing on their high safety record and crime control around stations, Gautrain security staff, while present, did not feel the need to intervene. Our only option at this point was to alight our Uber vehicle and board the Gautrain from Park station to Rosebank station. We then exercised our right to use an Uber to return to the safety of our home.

The South African government is investing a huge portion of the country’s GDP in establishing the public transport systems needed to realise their development goals for the future. The backbone of this public transport system will be passenger railway, enabled by the brand-new fleet of X’trapolis trains being manufactured in Gauteng, as well as the proposed expansion to Gautrain. The entire multi-billion rand enterprise of moving South Africa forward will, therefore, be entirely dependent on the service providers that carry commuters from their front doors to the train station and then to their final destinations at the end of the line. If the first and last mile solution is dominated by thugs, criminals and beneficiaries of corrupt business practices, I’m afraid that the ‘backbone of public transport in South Africa’ will crumble before we even have the chance to stand up. And I strongly suggest that role players swiftly focus their minds on finding a solution!

Positive news, Kenya Railways will launch their maiden trip on the long-await Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) line on 1 June, and – much to my enjoyment being a woman in rail – I see they have female train drivers! The National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) have their RFP ready for their much-anticipated and much-debated modernisation programme. The Nigerian FEC has given approval for further discussions with GE Transportation regarding their concession bid. 

I do hope you enjoy this issue and the number of conferences and exhibitions on the go not forgetting the 2nd of June is International Level Crossing Awareness Day.