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State of Safety Report unveils rail sector’s crossroads

25th October 2023

By: Natasha Odendaal

Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

     

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While South Africa’s railway sector works to rebuild post-pandemic, riots and a variety of other disasters, the latest Railway Safety Regulator’s (RSR’s) State of Safety Report 2022/23 has painted a bleak picture of the safety of the railway system that demands immediate action.

South Africa’s Transport Deputy Minister Lisa Mangcu said the stark reality was that railway networks across the country were at a crossroads.

According to the report, there were 10 746 negative events in the past year – 1 833 safety-related operational occurrences and 8 643 security-related incidents.

“Over a span of five years, these negative events have persistently affected the safety profile of our railways. This is not a mere statistic but a call for resolute action and reform. Operator productivity, a cornerstone of our railway system, is under siege,” said Mangcu during a panel discussion flighted by CNBC Africa on Wednesday.

He highlighted Transnet Freight Rail’s (TFR’s) 12% decrease in train kilometres, reflecting issues such as rolling stock unavailability, floods and vandalism, and the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa’s (PRASA’s) 74% production decline and 73% decrease in the number of passengers per kilometre, owing to main line passenger services disruption and vandalism.

Comparatively, Gautrain achieved a 156% increase in train kilometres and 136% increase in passenger kilometres.

While safety-related operational occurrences improved, concerns remain over people-related occurrences and station infrastructure, as well as spills and leaks, explosions or loss of dangerous goods, which disrupt the railway systems and compound the risks faced.

Theft and vandalism accounted for 97% of the security-related incidents, of which theft of assets accounted for 77.6%.

The railway sector recorded 109.5 Fatality and Weighting Index (FWI) incidents between 2018/19 and 2022/23, with 92 fatalities and 175 injuries from safety-related operational occurrences and 13 fatalities and 58 injuries from security-related incidents.

The report noted that while there was an increase in derailments per million train kilometres, there were decreases in level crossing occurrences, platform-train interchange occurrences and the number of people struck by trains.

However, the occurrences still result in fatalities and injuries and the growing incidence of illegally crossing railway lines emphasised the need for enhanced railway security, said Mangcu.

RSR chairperson Boy Johannes Nobunga said that the report underscored the pressing need for concerted efforts to address the challenges faced and spoke to the state of the railway infrastructure.

“We cannot afford to ignore the issues at hand,” he said, noting that the RSR was working closely with railway operators and the relevant authorities to enhance the safety measures, improve infrastructure and contribute towards solutions to deter theft and vandalism.

The regulator has undertaken various interventions, including safety permit issuance, inspections, audits and the development of regulations and safety standards.

“If you have safer railways, you will have more productive railways and you will have a better country,” added RSR acting CEO Mmuso Selaledi, noting that while the regulator was “not proud” of the situation, it was encouraged by the green shoots and improvements it was seeing.

The operational-related occurrences have improved, but the security-related incidents have deteriorated, resulting in decreased productivity levels by operators.

PRASA Rail acting CEO Nelson Malefane agreed that there had been improvements, explaining that the operator was recovering from the worst of the situation in terms of safety and vandalism.

Covid-19 caused a lot of damage to Transnet’s environment, stemming from a time when the actual operations were reduced significantly to only essential services, said TFR safety general manager Mandisa Mondi.

“By so doing, it meant that we ran fewer trains . . . creating opportunities for [vandalism and theft].”

“We need to strive towards . . . an environment that is well protected like that of the Gautrain,” she commented.

Most of Gautrain’s network is well protected and fenced off; however, this is not possible with 22 000 km criss-crossing communities that settle adjacent to the tracks.

“The communities’ basic needs actually force them to criss-cross these rail lines. Hence, we need to look at the root cause and ensure effective spatial planning that enables communities to coexist safely with rail.”

Despite the challenges, TFR said that the deployment of technologies had led to some wins for the company.

“The operators are not standing back. They are trying to do their part but they are not security companies,” said Selaledi, pointing out that the amount spent on drones, technology and protection services was not sustainable.

“We need the law enforcement and intelligence agencies to come on board and partner with communities and the operators to improve the picture on theft and vandalism.”

Mangcu assured that this was a priority of the Justice and Crime Prevention Strategic Cluster, but noted that as the country was running out of “fiscal runway”, there was a need to find innovative ways of absorbing technology through collaboration.

Edited by Creamer Media Reporter

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