It has been interesting watching a Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Transport, escorted by an army of officials from Botswana Railways, crisscross the country telling half truths and, in some instances, outright untruths about the real reasons why Government has decided to discontinue the passenger train.
Passengers, especially from among the poor sections of society, are the losers of the decision to halt passenger trains, but local authorities, especially councilors who provided the audiences for the various meetings addressed by the Deputy Permanent Secretary have emerged out of the whole circus looking like buffoons.
How could it be that so many councilors from areas sprawling the 800 kilometer or so of the rail line failed to detect that they were being lied to by Government officials?
There is no better example of the disdain with which government treats the public.
While discontinuing the passenger train is by itself pardonable to some extent, by far the most demeaning aspect of the whole drama has been the fact that, for many years and unbeknown to them, passengers’ lives were put at risk as they commuted in trains that were, in a literal sense, death traps.
An official statement from the Ministry of Transport states that the coaches had traveled something in the region of 15 000 kilometers without receiving services and overhauling exercises that had been due.
This is alarming and raises questions of the seriousness with which Botswana Railways, which operated these trains on behalf of Government, takes issues of safety that we used to believe were an integral part of the company’s mandate.
In their meetings, the officials have never come out clearly to say whose fault it was going to be if these trains had caused the accidents as a result of neglect and poor maintenance.
Botswana Railways itself has been at the forefront of covering up for central government’s misdeeds, failing to favour the public with simple truth of just how many times the Ministry had been asked or warned to finance the overdue services, maintenance and overhauling of trains.
The dishonesty and lack of dignity with which the Ministry of Transport and its company (Botswana Railways) treats ordinary Batswana should be a concern to a government that likes to pride itself as working towards dignity for all.
But then the truth of the matter is that the Deputy Permanent Secretary was not working on his own.
He was working on clear instructions given by his political principals and immediate supervisor who is the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Transport.
This is regrettable to say the least.
Just when we thought our government had put the era of public deceptions and deceits behind it, we are treated to a rude awakening by the debacle at Botswana Railways.
In case they did not know, as much as passenger trains did not make any money for Botswana Railways, they have always provided a direct link between the parastatal and the public, a link which helped justify government bailouts to the parastatal, (bailouts which by the way continue to this day.)
Going forward and providing no direct service to him/her, Botswana Railways will become irrelevant to an ordinary man and that will make the company highly expendable, especially if it continues to accumulate losses as it is currently doing.
In the future, Government will have no public pressure, obligation, let alone any plausible reason, to continue pumping public money into a company that has itself disabused itself of all the remnants of past attachments with ordinary people.
That is the folly of it all. It’s strange that BR executives have been so na├»ve as to fail to appreciate the public utility and political capital provided by passenger train even as the service continued to drain the parastatal’s financial resources.
It does not make sense for BR or the ministry to bombard the public with statistics of the losses incurred by the passenger train over the years as justification for discontinuing it.
Botswana Railways should know that nowhere in the world do passenger trains make decent profits as to attract private investors.
Everywhere in the world, passenger trains are a component of a larger public service that has to be footed by government, if only to enhance a greater national vision of making money through other profitable ventures.