Of sand and tracks

Railway infrastructure is being upgraded on the Simon's Town line.

The ups and downs of the Simon’s Town railway service an odd story. Just how old was shown by a most entertaining engineer who won the hearts of those attending the Simon’s Town Civic Association meeting last week before revealing improvements to the line.

“I’m the guy inside the machine. They don’t let me out much to interact with people,” said Prasa (Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa) engineering services manager Raymond Maseko with a grin, setting the tone for the evening.

Mr Maseko was a last-minute replacement for the originally advertised Prasa speaker on Wednesday October 19, at the Simon’s Town town hall.

What luck. Instead of the usual chugging train of PR-speak, there was a real human being who made the audience roar with laughter no mean feat when talking about a subject that usually makes people tense with frustration.

Take sand on the railway lines: “We’ve been maintaining the Simon’s Town line since 1936. We’ve been moving this sand since then. In 1936, when we opened the line, the very next day we had to shut it down because of sand on the tracks,” he said.

“Mother nature” is a challenge on the Simon’s Town end of the line, he said. Throwing up his arms, Mr Maseko imitated how people asked in dismay how the situation of sand on the tracks got so bad that buses had to be used.

“It’s not because we’re lazy and like to play on the computer,” he said. The answer would seem to be trying to navigate various government departments.

“We were moving the sand, minding our own business and in February last year the environment department came and said, what are you doing? This is a listed activity. You may not move sand within 100m of the shore.

“I told them I speaka (sic) no English. We were fined R5 million.”

Having the R5 million fine on his head, he said, he then applied to the department to “do the work we had been doing for the past 100 years”. Six months of processes down the line, the department “discovered we’re a parastatal and the process starts again”. Which they did, in Johannesburg. “Eventually Johannesburg says, you’re good for authorisation but your problem is managed by coastal management, just go to Cape Town.”

Now, at last, their track cleaning has been authorised by whoever it is who needs to authorise these matters and they can resume regular track sand clearing.

Besides clearing the sand on the tracks, Prasa is preparing for its new rolling stock which is due to be used on our line in February 2018.

“We are rehabilitating the infrastructure for the whole of the Western Cape from the bottom up. We have replaced the rails from Fish Hoek to Simon’s Town and have been replacing other components,” he said.

“If you see people digging from Simon’s Town to Muizenberg, they are replacing the old signalling infrastructure – the robots.”

Simon’s Town line is the first of the lines in the Western Cape to have its signalling infrastructure. The reason? “To tell the truth, you are a very well-behaved community,” he said, referring to the regular 2am phonecalls he gets alerting him to vandalism and destruction of property on the other lines.

The trains we use now are a marvel of endurance. The first models were built in the UK in 1959 and, once they had proved themselves, were built in South Africa between 1963 and 1968.

“This is the rolling stock we are currently rolling. They are very resilient – those old engineers were very good,” said Mr Maseko.

Prasa is currently testing 20 trains, made in Brazil, in Johannesburg and, should they be suitable, plans are to build more in South Africa – and use them on the newly refurbished Simon’s town line.