Eskom cited customer confidentiality for not warning hundreds of thousands of train users in the Western Cape that it was going to cut power to Metrorail on Thursday over an unpaid electricity bill.
“The point is we have a contract with Prasa [Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa]. That contract is confidential,” said Eskom spokesperson Sikonathi Mantshantsha, when asked why commuters were not warned ahead of time.
He said Prasa had known 48 hours in advance that its power would be cut if it did not pay its bill and so Prasa should have warned its customers.
“Metrorail commuters are customers of Prasa. Prasa is a customer of Eskom. We warned Prasa two days prior to actually terminating supply that if they don’t pay by the date – by yesterday [Thursday]- we will terminate supply,” said Mantshantsha.
“The commuters don’t owe Eskom anything,” he continued.
“We were not negotiating with commuters of Prasa. We were negotiating with the company that was in arrears for services rendered.”
He said nobody was supposed to know who was in arrears. He added the power utility did not even say how much was owed until Prasa went on radio.
But Prasa spokesperson Makhosini Mgitywa said they were taken by surprise.
“We didn’t expect it. We scrambled to pay when power was cut off. We knew that we didn’t have power when we didn’t have power.”
He added everybody knew that Prasa had financial problems, to the extent that an administrator was appointed.
“To take a step to cut off power because our invoice was 34 days overdue is unreasonable if you know that your client has the difficulty that we have.”
He added Eskom said Prasa’s account for the Western Cape is now “current”, so there should be no surprises for commuters on Friday – regarding electricity anyway.
“God willing, everything will go well,” he said of the Friday afternoon commute.
On Thursday afternoon, hundreds of thousands of Western Cape commuters who rely on the fragile Metrorail services found out they would have to find another way home after Metrorail’s electricity was cut off.
The Golden Arrow Bus Service added buses, and drivers worked until late to help clear the queues snaking through the Cape Town CBD as people hoped to get a space on a taxi.
Cape Town Mayor Dan Plato also tweeted a plea for Prasa to pay its Eskom bill.
Prasa made a hasty payment, and train services were brought back online a few hours later.
Western Cape Transport MEC Bonginkosi Madikizela was just as surprised when Eskom flipped the switch to Metrorail’s power.
“I am deeply concerned by the transport crisis that has arisen as a result of the cessation of rail services,” Madikizela said in a statement.
“We understand the deep frustration that this is causing for commuters who already experience a difficult daily commute, and many of who are now left stranded.
“Our rail network is the backbone of public transport in the Western Cape, especially within Cape Town, and that backbone is broken.
“Restoring our rail service is of the highest priority for us and for Prasa. Not only restoring the service today through resolution of the payment issues with Eskom, but also restoring the service to levels last seen a decade ago.”
Madikizela said the relationship with Prasa was good and they were working on fixing the collapsed Central Line to Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain.
At an emergency briefing on Thursday night, as workers stood for hours in taxi and bus queues, Mbalula said Prasa had made submissions to National Treasury over the last few months to transfer part of the capital budget to address operational expenses.
More than R18bn remained tied in the capital budget.”We will continue to robustly engage within the government to find a sustainable solution to the challenges facing commuter rail,” Mbalula said.
The United National Transport Union said Eskom exposed employees and commuters to “grave grave danger” by cutting off the power.
Spokesperson Sonja Carstens said there is no form of security for commuters or train crews, so they are at the mercy of criminals who see staff and commuters as soft targets.
She questioned why municipalities who owe Eskom money are not given the same treatment.
“It’s one state enterprise killing another one and we can’t see that it is justified.”