Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Covid-19 may derail passenger train for some time

The question on everyone’s mind about BR right now is when the passenger train will resume its services. 

The CEO did not shy away from expressing his uncertainty of when the blue pride of the country will be open for business.

“Operating costs for BR are now very high because with every train that crosses the border with South Africa we have to fumigate it.” 

The CEO said without disclosing the exact figures save to say the cost runs into millions.We have to make sure that our crews are safe and there is no better way than to protect them,” he said.

Makwinja candidly told this publication that Covid-19 has brought with it a huge expense for the parastatal. 

Covid-19 has hit hard on different sectors of the economy and slowed down progress in different industries with fears the country may well be in a Covid-19 infused recession. 

“It is still unclear when the passenger train will resume. Having said that, it’s very difficult to control people on the passenger train because it’s an overnight train and people sleep, you cannot sleep with your mask on. It was very expensive for Botswana railways to run the passenger train that is probably one thing that people do not know.” He stated.

He added that if the BR brings back the service it would have to be an improved one. 

The CEO disclosed that BR is trying to secure funds to buy Diesel Multiple Units-DMUs which are purposely made commuter trains.

“The nearest you can think of a DMU is like the Gautrain that can run the commuter service. We had plans to run them from Lobatse, stopping over at Otse, Ramotswa, Gaborone and Mochudi-Pilane and so forth.” He stated.

Makwinja expressed sadness that last year BR was in the red with losses of P15 million because the railway parastatal used the wrong locomotive for the passenger trains.

They were using freight locomotives which are meant to pull a lot of weight and a lot of volume which became very costly for them.

The BR has also embarked on projects some of which are already at construction level like the overhead bridge in Lobatse. 

The project, which is a partnership between BR and the Lobatse Town Council may be slightly derailed. The bridge is expected to be complete by April 2021 but due to the Covid-19 pandemic and its associated disruptions it may be completed later than due date. 

The BR CEO says the foot bridge was a milestone for them because people have been crossing from the bus rank to the town centre at the railway line by foot which is dangerous.

The P20 million footbridge which is a shared cost between BR and the Lobatse Town Council (LTC) promises to have amenities in the form of a coffee shop that people can sit over at and enjoy their drink.

“It’s an ideal project that we are doing in conjunction with the Lobatse Town Council, the funding is done by both of us because they are also in the safeguarding purposes of the people if this town. Hopefully it will finish next year in May if there are no further lockdowns because lockdowns force us to stop.” Said the CEO.

With, regards to the multi-billion Pula Mosetse-Kazungula bridge the CEO says it’s an exciting project for him because over the last two to three years BR has been discussing this project with government as a shareholder. It finally went to tender last year for a feasibility study with tenders having been evaluated. 

Makwinja says the tender that is being awarded now is for an evaluator and it is less than a million Pula just to evaluate.

“I am quite happy to say that government is supporting the project and we have the money now to do the feasibility study I’m sure by end of this year the study would be fully on, so the project is starting and I can tell you I think we will probably build Mmamabula-Lephalale first and maybe at the same time start the Mosetse-Kazungula railway line.” He noted.

The CEO also stated that they have done preliminary studies and it shows that the Mmamabula-Lephalale payback period is about seven years and Mosetse-Kazungula is about 11 years.

Makwinja said the feasibility study has attracted a lot of bidders from the international community.

The Mmamabula-Lephalale railway line is set to take two years to construct and the Mosetse-Kazungula about three years.

Makwinja says the only challenge he sees is the Covid-19 pandemic is that it might be an obstruction when people have to travel to conduct the study.

“I’m quite happy that I was able to drive the process to where it is, I would be happier if the railway line starts because for me it would be a big achievement for this country, running costs are not as big for me as starting the project. I will be very happy if we start the feasibility study before I leave,” he noted.

The Mosetse–Kazungula rail project is meant to provide a railway line from Mosetse in Botswana, connecting to Zambia and beyond through the Kazungula bridge. The rail line is part of the North–South Corridor (NSC), being a gateway to North African markets, promoting inter-regional trade, connecting the North African region to maritime ports in South Africa, and reducing haulage traffic on roads.

Makwinja leaves the BR at the end of this year.


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The Telegraph September 23

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 23, 2020.