THE reliability of the Passenger Rail Agency of SA's (Prasa's) loss-making, long-distance service, Shosholoza Meyl, is so poor that if Prasa was able to terminate the service it would, says CEO Lucky Montana.

Despite a dismal 40%-on-time performance record and a dramatic drop in passenger numbers to 1,7-million from 3,2-million annually over the past four years, there is still demand for low-cost long-distance rail services.

"We have been forced to rationalise the service, the issues of access and the locomotives have killed the business.

"The Shosholoza Meyl business is effectively dead," Mr Montana said in an interview yesterday.

Prasa was leasing locomotives that were uncompetitive as the technology required the constant hitching and unhitching of locomotives to handle the changes in power on lines that were either fully or partially electrified. "That is a 1912 railway system," he said.

The service had been dogged by inefficient and expensive locomotive leases and limited access to rail lines which were owned by state-owned port and rail company Transnet, said Mr Montana.

However, the demand for low-cost long-distance rail services combined with the politically delicate matter of potential job losses had prevented Prasa from shutting the service down.

In an effort to stabilise and support the ailing service, Prasa will invest R1,48bn in its long-distance services and at the end of next month will award a contract for the supply of 88 new locomotives, which it will lease with the option to purchase, Mr Montana said.

Prasa was "finding Transnet" on the issue of access to rail lines, he said, and work was under way to establish a service that would run from Pretoria to Polokwane and then on to Musina.

A second line under consideration for improved long-distance services is the link connecting Johannesburg with the Eastern Cape cities of Queenstown and Mthatha.

Establishing a reliable service that operated at speeds of between 140km/h and 160km/h - achievable on the country's narrow gauge rail lines - would be a target over the next three years.

Paul Browning, an independent transport analyst, said yesterday the investment programme was welcome news. "Transnet has had the upper hand because it owns the tracks and locomotives, but Transnet is a freight rail system, so to Transnet the Shosholoza Meyl really gets in the way and I don't think they wouldn't be unhappy if it disappeared," Mr Browning said.

"But there are good reasons why it shouldn't be let go because a long-distance service in a country the size of SA, even with the advent of low-cost airlines, provides important alternatives. You can't catch an airplane from Klerksdorp to Cape Town. Long-distance rail has an important part to play."

Providing support to Shosholoza Meyl while the new investments came on stream would be crucial to the company's continued relevance to rail users, Mr Browning said.

The focus had been diverted from the existing long-distance infrastructure by projects such as the mooted high-speed rail link between Johannesburg and Durban.

"Attention has been diverted to the bright, shiny future of high-speed rail, such as the project that has been suggested between Durban and the Reef (Johannesburg), and a high-speed link to Cape Town has also been mentioned," Mr Browning said. "As with so many things, the interested observer wonders whether there isn't something that can be done with what we have. I am pleased to hear what Mr Montana is saying; it is the right way to go."

Mr Montana said that in the long term SA would move into "real high-speed rail" investments in order to offer efficient and competitive connectivity between cities that lie far apart. These trains would operate on standard gauge, which is wider than narrow gauge rail lines, and would travel at speeds between 250km/h and 350km/h.

smithn@bdfm.co.za