Botswana Railways passengers should count themselves lucky that they are alive and well after traveling in a death trap for 15 years.
The Botswana Railways (BR), which has been neglecting safety procedures, has been exposing its passengers to accident risks for more than 10 years.
The planned maintenance of the company’s fleet was that its coaches were to be serviced after 500 000 kms or every 5 years, which ever was to occur first.
The servicing was ideally intended to address issues arising out of wear and tear and safety-critical components to ensure that the coaches were in good order.
Information given to the Sunday Standard reveals that BR has never once serviced its passenger coaches over the past 15 years when the fleet was introduced to the market as passenger trains between 1991 and 1993.
Failure to service the fleet did not guarantee operators or passengers’ safety as BR could not warrant the reliability of the two passenger trains.
Following the report by Minister of Works and Transport, Johnnie Swartz, to the Committee of Supply on Wednesday last week, BR has decided to terminate the use of its passenger coaches countrywide.
The suspension is expected to take effect on Wednesday the 1st of April.
Lewis Malikongwa, the deputy Permanent Secretary of the ministry, said that reaching such a decision was a lengthy process which involved numerous consultations between BR management and government.
“Due to the lack of servicing, the passenger service of Botswana Railways is running at a risk of having accidents and poses problems in terms of predictability in the short term and long term sustainability of the service,” said Malikongwa.
He added that despite the safety hazard, the coaches are also not in good working order.
The company has also been consistently making losses of about P30 million per annum.
Passenger services of BR accounts for less than 10% of its operating revenues.
Although BR had been allocated a budget of 586 million recently, Malikongwa argues that the sustainability of rail passenger services worldwide has generally suggested that rail passenger services cannot operate commercially without any subsidization from governments.
“The notion being that they are run on behalf of government for social and economic reasons rather than for commercial reasons,” said Malikongwa.
BR is not hoping for any government bail-out presently because of the ongoing economic conditions and development challenges facing the country today.
Malikongwa insists that the ministry acknowledges and expects that the termination of rail passenger services will create a service gap that will need to be filled and, as such, road oriented public transport operators should be challenged to seize the opportunity and meet the demands of the increased number of customers.
BT Chief Executive Officer, Taolo Sebonego, claims that the company’s turn around strategy is to work hard to ensure that the organization continues to be what he terms a “sustainable entity”.
Meanwhile, the company currently has 26 coaches and is now looking for ways to dispose of them; sales are an option.
However, Sebonego would not reveal the number of workers specifically working under the passenger service staff and how they might be affected by the termination.
“Issues of retrenchments might not be an option,” said Sebonego.