It will take another year for the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) to restore limited electrical service on the main rail lines servicing Cape Town and Johannesburg, the entity conceded in Parliament on Wednesday.
"We are now looking at the end of October or November next year to bring back limited electrical service on the Central and Mabopane lines,“ PRASA's chief executive for infrastructure, Hishaam Emeran, told Parliament's standing committee on transport, public service, administration and public works.
The restoration of limited service on the two critical commuters lines had been promised for October this year, with the resumption of the full service set down for 2021.
Emeran said full service could now only be hoped to be achieved on both lines in 2022.
In the interim, PRASA will resort to running trains on diesel on the Mabopane line from November. It had hoped, CEO Nosipho Damasane said, to introduce a hybrid system with buses but shelved this plan after the local taxi industry protested that it was left out of the loop.
In Cape Town, trains will run on diesel in and around the inner city area, shored up by 80 Autopax buses in the outer areas where problems have been compounded by people building shacks on railway lines.
According to PRASA officials, the goalposts for refurbishment shifted in part because of a surge in the vandalism of rail infrastructure during the country's Covid-19 lockdown.
Interim PRASA group executive for infrastructure management, Badisa Matshego noted that criminals also appeared to have stepped up their stripping of copper wires and metal on railway operations since plans were announced to refurbish the lines.
The refurbishment will not proceed, he stressed, until a workable security system has been procured and implemented, to prevent infrastructure being vandalised again as soon as it was repaired.
The security project can go ahead thanks to a special R900 million (US$55 million) approved by National Treasury this week.
Matshego said the bulk of the money will be spent on procuring surveillance material, such as drones, and hiring "warm bodies"to act on the footage gathered in this manner.
Tenders for some of the material will start going out to the market within the coming weeks and months, Tebogo Ratau, PRASA's acting head of security said.
He said PRASA needed to employ at least eight people per station to secure stations and the immediate plan was to employ an initial 556 security and armed response staff as a start to an eventual complement of 3,100 people.
Advertisements in this regard will also be published within the coming weeks, he said.
ANC MP Mohammed Dangor, who evocatively described rail stations as being "stripped to the plinth", argued that it would be wiser to re-establish a railway police unit with the power of arrest, than to appoint private security "who have to call the police to arrest people".
Matshego conceded that existing contracts with private security companies had failed to deliver the needed results and said on the tenders, every effort would be made to ensure that PRASA gets what is required.
Only 12 of PRASA's 34 rail corridors are operational at the moment.
The damage to infrastructure has been described by Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula as a campaign of industrial sabotage.