Some thoughts for 2015!

Some thoughts for 2015!

By the time you read this, the e-toll review committee should have released its report. As this column has tediously repeated up to now, there is no easy way out at this stage. Contracts have been signed, money has been spent and loans must now be repaid. So let’s use the Christmas break to reflect on how we got into this state and to start thinking about damage control in the future.

A good place to start would be the annual October Public Transport Month, which has been running for 20 years now. It has become a meaningless charade, and it’s time someone pulled the plug on it. All it achieves is to transfer funds from the taxpayer to the printing and catering industries.

I’m looking at a four-page handout included with the New Age newspaper on October 1. There are 26 pictures in it, including one of a Gautrain as well as one of a new Prasa train. Both of them are standing next to platforms that are completely devoid of passengers.

Another picture shows a minibus taxi loading a queue of 17 people. At least it is doing some work! This is a metaphor for public transport in South Africa, where underperforming modes get plenty of money, while existing road passenger modes (ordinary buses and taxis) are starved of both management and funds.

This seems to have escaped the organisers of Public Transport Month, whose handout states that Gautrain has transported 13 million people in 2013. No mention is made of the subsidy … sorry, “patronage guarantee” of
R1 billion, which works out at R77 per passenger trip.

The handout also mentions that the taxi industry handles more than 15 million trips in a single day, and proudly announces that the government has spent R2,5 billion on taxi recapitalisation in the last 15 years.

Please check my math, but that amounts to less than R0,06 per taxi trip. So Gautrain passengers get about 1 200 times the subsidy that taxi passengers get!  

Taxi passengers can take comfort though. The handout tells us that the scrapping allowance has gone up from R66 000 to R70 000, that taxi operators can become shareholders in bus rapid transport (BRT) companies and that “qualifying” taxi operators are exempt from paying tolls. Big deal!

But let’s stay with rail for now. As part of October Transport Month, Metrorail introduced a Business Express between Soccer City and Johannesburg station. If we look up the latest rail fares we’ll discover that in Gauteng you can travel 100 km by rail (third class) for R10,50 – that’s the cash fare – it’s even cheaper if you buy a weekly or monthly ticket. (For some reason that completely beats me, it costs more – R12,00 – if you live in Durban or Cape Town).

Try travelling 100 km by minibus taxi and see how much it costs. You would probably have to change twice and would pay between R50 and R100, if not more.

Don’t these distortions bother anyone? Certainly not the authors of the October supplement, which proudly claims that “our transport infrastructure has evolved from a tool under apartheid used to divide communities to one that brings South Africans together and connects them to economic activities”. Doggedly, it presses on: “Over the years a number of strategic transport investments have moved us closer to an integrated rapid public transport network …”

Oh please! The exact opposite has been happening. In Johannesburg the introduction of BRT has resulted in duplication of services, separate ticket systems and poor coordination, even within the BRT system itself. Not to mention Gautrain; which operates a completely different fare system as well as an ineffective bus feeder service. The story in Cape Town is not much better.

A final nit-pick from the October handout, which claims that “billions of rand have been allocated towards improving the lives of millions of train commuters …” The reality is that today there are less than one million South Africans who use trains each day. Spending R51 billion on new trains to keep them happy sounds like a poor investment to me. Rather shave that to R40 billion and put the remainder into fixing the taxi industry. (The bus industry can fix itself).

So there we have it. Public transport users are underfunded in some places, overfunded in others. Different service levels apply and through-ticketing is non-existent.

Don’t expect the e-toll review committee to pick up on any of this. My guess is that it will deal with issues like “user pay”, “regressive tax” and “cross-subsidy”, all of which are quite clever, but which should initially be applied to the massive distortions in the way public transport is funded, operated and paid for.

Sort these distortions out first, and we will find that fewer people will travel by car. Then we won’t need a fourth lane on any freeway.

Have a congestion-free 2015! Just joking …

Vaughan Mostert is a senior lecturer in the Department of Transport and Supply Chain Management at the University of Johannesburg. He developed a love for public transport early in life, which led to a lifelong academic interest in the subject. Through Hopping Off, Mostert leaves readers with some parting food for thought as he continues his push for change in the local public transport industry.

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