"TRAINS kill more than the mines." That's a tough headline to ignore, even in a country inured to violent news. Yet when South African newspapers went to press with the results of a survey that showed five times more people had been killed in railway accidents than down the country's deep and often dangerous mines, the nation was shocked.

The numbers were published in a 2012 survey carried out by South African Institute of Race Relations which found that 160 people had died in mining accidents in 2009 and 2010, but that almost 900 people had been killed in rail-related accidents between 2007 and 2009. Most of those killed - 81% - had been hit by moving trains.

Prasa 4000 squareNews headlines revealed a business dogged by misfortune, much of it falling on the country's embattled commuter train services. "Woman dies after being hit by train." "17 Hurt in Pretoria train stampede." "Drivers won't be made "scapegoats" by Metrorail." "Metrorail trains falling apart."

If there is one thing Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) group CEO Mr Lucky Montana wants to see, it is an end to these negative headlines.

Montana, who has been head of Prasa since the agency's formation in 2006, has taken much of the flak as the company struggles to fulfil its mandate to supply safe, reliable, clean and cheap rail transport for South Africans. He will stand down next year after 10 years in the job partly citing health reasons.

When South African rail operator Transnet handed over its ailing commuter and long-distance passenger operations to Prasa, the state-owned entity tasked with halting the neglect in the country's passenger rail services, all agreed that it was a good idea - the move would allow Transnet to focus on its core freight business and would open the way for Prasa to fix the country's passenger trains.

It would be fair to say, however, that the passenger business was a poisoned chalice. For decades, commuter and long-distance passenger trains had borne the brunt of catastrophic underinvestment and much of the business had been lost to minibus taxis and buses. Long-distance passenger trains, operated by Shosholoza Meyl, have been steadily whittled away, the most recent cuts coming last December, when another slew of services were cut from the timetable.

The Metrorail commuter rail network, which carries some 1.7m passengers daily, has its own woes. Its elderly trains - a locally-built version of a 1950s Metro-Cammell EMU design and recently rebuilt from the underframes up - are prone to failures. Scrap metal thieves frequently steal overhead cables, disrupting services on entire networks. Other thieves prey on passengers in overcrowded coaches. The result has been repeat episodes of angry commuters venting their frustrations by setting fire to trains and, in one infamous event, the grand edifice of Pretoria station itself.

Many of the problems stem from three decades of underinvestment in passenger rail. Matters were not helped by an occasionally fractious relationship between Prasa and Transnet Freight Rail. Montana is quick to assert that the relationship today between the two operators is amicable, although it was not always so.

"The relationship is very good," Montana says, "but there are historical underlying issues [such as] the industry structure, network access and tariffs."

The issues related to spats with Transnet over track access, haulage fees and locomotive repairs. Prasa owns 2228km of the 3180km of track on which it operates, and 585 of the stations that it serves, while Transnet owns the rest.

While Metrorail had its own commuter train drivers and guards, locomotives and train crew were originally hired from Transnet for the Shosholoza Meyl trains. When that proved troublesome, Prasa trained its own locomotive crews and acquired from Transnet a fleet of tired hand-me-down electric and diesel locomotives which were plagued by breakdowns.

Prasa has also complained repeatedly about freight trains being given priority over passenger trains, causing delays for both commuter and long-distance services.

"Shosholoza Meyl must have access to a quality network," Montana says. "Currently we do not - sometimes we wait for freight trains. That has to do with the industry structure. Other parts of the world have dealt with that issue, where they have given priority to passenger trains."

Montana says dialogue with the freight railway continues to offer hope. Meanwhile, Prasa has embarked on a vast modernisation programme which will see it spend Rand 172bn ($US 14.53bn) on infrastructure and new EMUs and locomotives over the next 20 years.

The Alstom-led Gibela consortium has a Rand 51bn 10-year contract to build 600 X'Trapolis Mega EMUs, the first of which are due to enter revenue service in mid-2016. The first 20 sets will be built at Alstom's Lapa plant in Brazil after which production will be transferred to a new purpose-built manufacturing facility at Dunnottar, 50km east of Johannesburg.

Prasa has turned to Vossloh for a fleet of 50 diesel-electric and 20 electro-diesel locomotives for its long-distance trains. The first 10 locomotives - dubbed "Afro4000" by Prasa - in the €250m deal have arrived from Spain and are currently undergoing thorough testing.

Montana says the new units will resolve the twin scourges of locomotive and crew availability. The long distances coupled with Prasa's motley fleet of diesels and various 3kV and 25kV electric locomotives, meant it was often a struggle to find crew qualified to operate various locomotives, and relief drivers and their assistants would often find themselves being shuttled by crew van to remote sidings to board their trains.

"We [need] a locomotive that will change all of that," Montana says, "one that will reduce travel times, reduce those operational inefficiencies, so that we don't hire [vans] to move a driver per locomotive."

Urban growth

New rolling stock is all very nice but will it be enough to turn Prasa's business around? South Africa's biggest urban areas - Gauteng, Durban and Cape Town - continue to expand at a rapid pace (the population of Johannesburg alone is expected rise from 7.8 million in 2011 to 18 million by 2025) and efficient commuter rail will be essential if the city is to cope with its burgeoning population.

Increased traffic congestion, combined with a deteriorating rural road network will also boost the need for a decent and reliable long-distance passenger service, yet the few trains that remain on the timetable continue to suffer from delays and breakdowns, and Shosholoza Meyl continues to shed customers.

"Historically, the long-distance service was carrying four million passengers a year but it has lost that over time," Montana says. Current passenger numbers are estimated at three million people a year.

Montana is certain the issues can be resolved.

First, Prasa turned to Lufthansa Consulting to look at its long-distance trains. "They said it would not make money but that it could be a very important and viable business," he says.

"Looking at the passenger trips over a year, we found that 40-60% of the people going in taxis and buses actually wanted to travel by rail as they believed it is safer. But if we don't sort out the reliability of the network and reduce the travel times, we are not going to sustain that."

Another sticking point is Transnet's access and haulage fees.

"When we transferred Shosholoza Meyl to Prasa, we had agreed on an amount of Rand 300m for access and haulage charges," Montana says. "It is time to review all that and find a more sustainable structure."

Prasa has run Shosholoza Meyl without government subsidy from the start but after submitting its turnaround plan to government, Montana hopes this will change.

"When we did the first due diligence in 2007, we knew we wanted Rand 1.3bn," he says. "Today, looking at what we have plus the passenger numbers we are only asking for Rand 700m per year. That is a fraction of what the country pays for the loss of life and destruction of infrastructure when you look at the carnage on our roads."

Meanwhile, the Metrorail networks should benefit from the division's new Operational Efficiency Plan which focuses on improving Metrorail's infrastructure and train services. More express train routes will be introduced along with peak-hour shuttle services between certain stations. Trains will depart every 10, 20 and 30 minutes, depending on the route and time of day.

To ease bottlenecks elsewhere in the system, a Rand 1bn infrastructure programme will help to resolve the widespread speed restrictions that litter Metrorail's network.

Prasa has many detractors, not least of all its long-suffering customers. It has 30 years of neglect to reverse even as its private-sector competitors - minibus taxis for commuters and buses and low-cost airlines for longer journeys - continue to lure its customers away.

No-one, however, could fault Montana's enthusiasm for the future of passenger rail in South Africa.

"We are implementing a bold programme," he says. "The country deserves a functioning, dynamic long-distance service. And beyond the next 10-15 years, this country will require high-speed rail. Today's long-distance service will become tomorrow's regional service. Long-distance trains must be high-speed trains."