/ 28 November 2018

Design a railway system to prevent carnage on the N1

Off the rails: A Prasa contractor is now facing liquidation over suspect business practices.
'South Africa is capable of delivering a world-class safe, inclusive and reliable public transport system,' writes Robert Shivambu. (Paul Botes/M&G)


The N1 north, which connects Gauteng, Limpopo and Zimbabwe, is one of the longest and busiest roads in Southern Africa. It carries thousands of people daily, both local and transnational commuters, as well as trucks transporting goods between countries.

But the road has recently been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons — accidents on the “notorious N1 north”. Dozens of people have died since the beginning of 2018 on the “freeway to death.”

According to a news report, quoting the Road Traffic Management Corporation this week, 134 people have perished in 69 crashes between April and October. Imagine the numbers of dead if the figures from the rest of 2018 and from 2016 and 2017 are included.

While we continue to count the bodies on the N1, with many more people likely to perish during the fast-approaching festive season, the question arises: How many more bodies should we continue to count until someone starts thinking creatively about alternative modes of public transport that will safely and easily transport people and goods?

This question is relevant because road transport is increasingly unsafe in South Africa, given our bad driving behaviour and accidents caused by human error.

A few weeks ago, I saw a tweet by British businessman Richard Branson. In it, he announced that with his Virgin Trains empire he would be creating a new public train system in the United States with the capacity to carry millions of people. Branson comes from the United Kingdom, a country that has a long-standing public transport system, both rail and road, where people are spoilt for choice. Whenever I am in London I am always amazed by the huge public transport investment the British have made in their national infrastructure.

In fact, most of my friends and colleagues who live there don’t own a car, let alone have a driver’s licence, because there is no need. There is no denying that the UK is one of the leading economies in the world today, partly because of its sophisticated public transport infrastructure system; the ease of movement translates into economic growth.

Having said that, studies have shown that public transport in the UK is not as inclusive as it should be. A recent study by one of the universities has revealed that “unaffordable and unreliable public transport is cutting off the poorest families in the north of England from crucial job opportunities”.

South Africa is capable of delivering a world-class safe, inclusive and reliable public transport system, which could absorb people who face the risk of being killed on the road when they travel on the N1 to the north and south.

According to Africa Check, a pan-African fact-checking website, SAA received R29.1-billion of government guarantees between 2012 and 2018 — R10-billion in 2018 alone. This is the sort of money that the country should be spending on building an alternative safe public transport system along the N1 and other busy routes in South Africa, instead of continuing to waste money by bailing out the parasitic SAA, a worthless investment.

Just last week, the SABC reported that Transport Minister Blade Ndzimande announced that the government was to spend just more than R4-billion on the “separation of the northbound and southbound carriageways between Kranskop and Makhado”, to improve the road. The government should rather channel this money to rail transport. It is safer, reliable and environmentally friendly.

Robert Shivambu is a media manager at Amnesty International. He is passionate about social justice and global issues. Follow him on Twitter@RobertShivambu