It is only a matter of time before the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) will be forced to face another derailment or serious accident on its Metrorail lines, says United National Transport Union (UNTU) spokesperson Sonja Carstens.
“PRASA is sitting on a ticking time bomb.”
UNTU represents the majority of employees within PRASA.
Speaking at a National Press Club event in Pretoria, Carstens said on Tuesday that train hijackings had seen a sharp rise this year.
She could not provide numbers, but noted that feedback from UNTU members indicated that it was an almost weekly event.
A train hijacking occurs when commuters force the train driver to continue on a route of their choice, or without waiting for the appropriate safety clearance. These threats happened at gunpoint, with the use of a knife, or by commuters threatening to torch the train.
Carstens said control officers had, to date, been able to stop other trains on the network, set on a collision course with the hijacked train, through the use of red signals.
However, she warned, hijacked trains were an accident waiting to happen, as a train was on a route it was not supposed to be, at a time when it was not supposed to be there.
The most dangerous routes, according to UNTU members, are the Pretoria to Johannesburg route, as well routes on the East Rand and in Vereeniging.
Carstens said the driving force behind the hijackings was commuters growing frustrated with extended delays on the Metrorail routes.
The situation this year worsened after the Railway Safety Regulator (RSR), the train safety watchdog, in January again allowed PRASA to operate trains with manual authorisation, but on the condition that the train does not increase its speed to more than 30 km/h.
This was done to ensure commuter safety after the RSR found that human error was to blame for two collisions on the East Rand, when manual authorisation was used – and then banned.
Manual authorisation means that the driver does not have a green signal to continue (due to cable theft, for example), but continues as he or she is physically able to see the route.
This process has led to severe delays on the Metrorail routes.
Carstens said Metrorail trains used to return to the Vereeniging yard at 22:00, but now did so after midnight.
She added that PRASA would not be able to operate any trains if they did not use manual authorisation.
She said PRASA did not want the issue of hijacked trains to go public, as the agency feared it would lead to an increase in this type of crime.
Carstens noted, however, that PRASA “train drivers are traumatised and resigning at an alarming rate. They fear for their lives”.
She added that UNTU believed no one was taking responsibility for the safety of PRASA commuters, employees and infrastructure.
Carstens was supposed to be joined by the South African Police Service, PRASA and the RSR at the National Press Club event, but each of these parties declined participation.
UNTU believed that the solution to the problem of crime on trains and hijacked trains was two-fold.
The short-term solution is to duplicate recent measures taken on the central line in Cape Town, which has been plagued by vandalism and crime.
The train driver is now joined by an armed guard within the cab, as is the metro guard at the end of the train, with two guards in the middle of the train.
Carstens noted, however, that this was an expensive solution.
Longer-term solutions included fencing off the railway reserve, and for the police to take full responsibility for the safety of PRASA commuters.
While a body such as the Rapid Rail Police existed, they were invisible, said Carstens.
Rolling out PRASA’s new rolling stock – which was currently happening slowly – would help, she added, as these trains could achieve higher speeds. The new signal networks being rolled out would also assist.
However, she warned, the RSR was unlikely to allow PRASA to use the new trains “unless the railway line was secured”.
Also, the trains and the platforms were mismatched, with the trains often too high for the platforms.
Stability at PRASA would also help, added Carstens, as UNTU had to deal with three different boards, three different ministers and three different acting CEOs in the past year.