South Africa: Metrorail Comes to Grinding Halt Because of Unpaid Electricity Bill

28 February 2020

PRASA owed ESKOM R4 million and was 34 days overdue

On Thursday ESKOM cut the electricity supply to Metrorail in the Western Cape because of a R4 million outstanding debt owed to it by the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA), the state-owned enterprise that operates Metrorail. This caused the province's commuter train service to come to a grinding halt in the afternoon.

A PRASA statement acknowledged that the payment was 34 days overdue. PRASA settled the bill on Thursday afternoon and electricity was restored. When GroundUp visited Cape Town central train station just after 6pm, intercom announcements stated that the trains were running, although delays of over two hours could be expected.

Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula appeared to criticise ESKOM's cutting of power: "[O]ther regions have not been subjected to a similar treatment," he said in a statement on Thursday evening. "Of equal concern is the fact that ESKOM had declared Metrorail a priority user at the start of load-shedding and cuts of traction power are unprecedented."

Mbalula said the suspension affected 289,000 commuters travelling in the afternoon. "Equally, this action represents the deepening of the crisis facing PRASA. It is a matter of public record that PRASA is experiencing a cash flow crisis as a result of a depleted operational budget while a significant amount in excess of R18 billion remains tied in the capital budget," the minister stated. He said that PRASA has been discussing ways of alleviating its financial problems with Treasury. This included using a portion of the capital budget for operations.

In a press conference at Cape Town station, Mbalula said that PRASA's management has been "decapitated and totally depleted".

"This is a broken place that we are reconstructing," the minister said.

This is the second time in the past month that PRASA has been in trouble for not paying its bills. The rail agency failed to pay its lawyers, Werksmans Attorneys, on time. This almost resulted in PRASA being unrepresented in a multi-billion rand lawsuit against Siyangena Technologies.

Last year Mbalula placed PRASA under administration but commuter activist group #UniteBehind argues that he has done so unlawfully and has also taken him to court. #UniteBehind wants Mbalula to rather appoint a permanent board. It has criticised the newly appointed PRASA Administrator Bongisizwe Mpondo for appointing an advisor who supported a botched Siyangena tender deal.

More about Metrorail

PRASA fails to provide security plan to court 26 February 2020

Judges award punitive cost order against PRASA for delay in multi-billion rand Siyangena case 24 February 2020

"Every day I fear for my life" says train driver 20 February 2020

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