Kei rail steams ahead

Janine Erasmus

South Africa’s Eastern Cape region has been described as the crucible of modern South African history and identity. The eastern part of the province, where the former black homelands of Ciskei and Transkei were located in the 1970s and 80s, has inherited a legacy of under-development as a result of the so-called independent status foisted upon them by the apartheid government during the homeland phase. But that is about to change.

The area is to receive a much-needed boost with the re-opening of the rail route that runs between the port city of East London, and Mthatha, 235 km to the northeast. Both freight and passenger services on the 281-km stretch of line came to a halt in 1988, as the route was carrying less than 400 000 tons of freight a year and came to be regarded as low-density.

Kei Rail received its operating licence on 5 February 2008 from the Rail Safety Regulator (RSR). Both passenger and freight services will be offered; 1 March has been officially named as the starting date of the Kei Rail passenger service while freight services will commence later in the year. It is hoped that the latter will reduce the high levels of heavy-duty traffic on the road between the two towns, thus cutting down on the costs of road maintenance and repair.

The resurrection of the route is expected to “lay a firm foundation for future economic expansion in the impoverished eastern half of the province”, says Eastern Cape Member of the Executive Council for Safety, Liaison and Transport, Thobile Mhlahlo.

A passenger service between East London and nearby King Williams Town is also expected to commence before the end of March 2008.

“This is a great day for the people of the Eastern Cape,” said Mhlahlo. “They will now have a safe and reliable transport option in an area with limited options. The revival of the Kei Rail line, which has lain dormant for many years, has been a focus of the Department of Roads and Transport for some time now. ”

Rich in history

The railway between East London and Mthatha dates back to 1916. The re-opening of the long-dormant route is only one component of a wider socio-economic initiative of the Eastern Cape provincial government intended to increase economic activity and job creation and alleviate poverty in one of South Africa’s poorest, yet most historically rich, provinces.

Mthatha, in the OR Tambo municipality, was previously known as Umtata, and between 1976 and 1994 was the capital of the former black homeland of Transkei.

Statistics reveal that 88% of the households in this area live below minimum poverty level, and 77% of the economically active population is unemployed. A massive 93.3% of inhabitants live in rural conditions.

Many prominent South African leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu hail from this part of the province. The Nelson Mandela National Museum, situated in Mthatha, is visited by thousands of local and international tourists every year. Development of a better public transport route to the town is expected to attract even more tourists.

Great economic potential

The area has never been allowed to reach its full economic potential. The Glen Grey Act of 1894, which was driven by mining magnate Cecil John Rhodes, took away the land rights of the indigenous people in certain areas and pushed them into reserves, leaving the way open for industrial development and exploitation of the lands which were historically theirs.

The Glen Grey Act, and other legislation such as the Land Act of 1913, which limited land ownership for black people to black territories, as well as the so-called land betterment schemes, had a profound effect on the region. These schemes effectively stifled traditional African techniques of agriculture and animal husbandry that, in hindsight, were better adapted to local soil and climatic conditions than the government-initiated strategies that replaced them.

In addition, the railway line, once established, took resources away from the area. With limited opportunities to earn a living, workers were forced to seek jobs further afield. Many of them left the area to take up employment in the mines in Johannesburg. Agricultural and mineral produce was shipped out, destined for bigger markets.

Eventually the economy of the area became so stagnant that the decision was taken to close the passenger and freight services.

Transport is a developmental priority

Deteriorating transport infrastructure has also played a role in the depressed economy of the region because of limited access to markets and labour. The Eastern Cape provincial government has identified transport as a vital component in economic growth. It has accordingly earmarked R1.48 billion to improving transport infrastructure as part of its 10-year provincial growth and development plan, which is designed to reduce poverty and attain sustainable levels of economic growth and job creation.

The timber industry, in particular, will benefit from the resumption of rail services – it is estimated that more than 2.4 tons of timber will travel on Kei Rail over the next 20 years. A strong transportation network will facilitate the movement of timber products to foreign markets. The improvements to the East London-Mthatha line will also benefit the agricultural industry, with the shipping of 1.4 million tons of grain and 500 000 tons each of red meat and wool. Additionally, 200 000 tons each of fertiliser, lime and fuel are forecast.

Phasing in the service

Launched in 2003, the R117 million Kei Rail project created jobs for more than 500 skilled and semi-skilled people in the initial phase and to date has afforded more than 1 400 people the chance of employment. The Eastern Cape government envisions the creation of 28 000 jobs over the next 20 years through the project.

Initially the train will run on weekends only, and during the day – because pedestrians have become used to the empty rails and they are often found walking on the line. So for safety purposes the train will only operate when it is most visible.

The Department of Roads and Transport also conducted an awareness programme to inform people of the dangers of an operational railway line. This took the form of a poster campaign and a radio and print advertising campaign, as well as flyers and visits to communities along the line. Learners participated in a colouring-in competition, and industrial theatre visits were arranged for schools in Butterworth, Komga, Dutywa and Viedgesville – these communities are situated along the railway line.

Railway police to ensure commuters’ safety

A related initiative of the Eastern Cape provincial government is the launch of the Eastern Cape Railway Police Unit, in collaboration with the South African Police Services and Metrorail. The launch took place on 11 February and forms part of the provincial government’s Safety and Security Month programme. The unit aims to be 1 000-strong by 2010 to ensure the safety of commuters who will be visiting the Eastern Cape to watch matches during the Fifa World Cup.

Said Mhlahlo at the launch, “Today we are making history as the province of the Eastern Cape by reintroducing strong security measures that guarantee the safety of our people when they use trains.

“Our main objective is to have a law enforcement contingent, which is founded on democratic values and observance of human rights, which are matched by issues of development, cooperation and peace. The new unit’s duty is to provide a security service to the people who use the trains.”

The numbers of the Railway Police Unit will soon be swelled with the deployment in December 2008 of 215 student constables, currently enrolled at the Police Training College in Bhisho, the capital of the Eastern Cape.

Rail services in South Africa have experienced high levels of crime in recent years, but with the new Railway Police Unit on patrol the government hopes to restore the confidence of citizens in the rail service, easing the daily traffic congestion on the roads.

Partners in the Kei Rail resuscitation project include the Eastern Cape Department of Roads and Transport, Sheltam Grindrod, the South African Rail Commuter Corporation (Metrorail), Transnet Freight Rail, and Rail Focus.

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