State of rail safety report paints a bad picture

Freddie Kgomari, Tshepo Kgare both from Railway Safety Regular and Fikile Mbalula. Photo by Mzi Velapi

There is a lack of safety and security on South Africa’s rail network with 3,990 operational occurrences and 9,268 security-related incidents recorded between April 2018 and March 2019.

A report by the Railway Safety Regulator tells of insecurity on the country’s trains over the past year, especially in South Africa’s urban centres. The report, which was released by Transport Minister, Fikile Mbalula, reveals that there was an increase of 20% in security-related incidents while an 11% drop in operational occurrences was recorded. Security-related incidents are those that threaten the personal safety of commuters on trains and at stations, including the theft of assets, vandalism, crowd-related occurrences and industrial action. Operational incidents, on the other hand, include derailments, collisions, level crossing accidents and occurrences where people are stuck by moving trains.

Threats to personal safety, according to the report, are worse on the three large Metrorail networks in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape. Gauteng recorded 1,136 such security incidents, while KwaZulu-Natal had 1,030 and the Western Cape 680.

According to Freddie Kgomari from the Railway Safety Regulator, its investigations on derailments show that they are caused by worn-out infrastructure. Kgomari cited “tracks that are not correctly maintained” and speeding trains as some of the reasons for the derailment of trains.

The transport minister promised that the “war room” launched last month will deal with problems facing the railways in South Africa. In June this year, in trying to experience the rail service in Cape Town, Mbalula took a train from Khayelitsha to Langa station but got stuck at Philippi station. The war room – which is a collective of individuals with powers to implement decisions rapidly – is meant to improve service recovery, paying particular attention to the availability and reliability of rolling stock, infrastructure maintenance and train performance. The war room is also expected to deal with safety management and the accelerated implementation of a modernisation programme.

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#UniteBehind – a coalition of civil society and commuter organisations – has maintained a critical stance on the war room, arguing that while there is a need for a control centre with extensive powers to deal with railway problems, the war room has no clear plan and there was no proper consultation with commuters on its mandate.

“We are in the process of bringing in a security arrangement that would be able to deal with crowd control and combat. The South African Police Services will assist with training,” said Mbalula.

“There is R18-billion in excess at Prasa (Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa) that is not being used and we plan to spend that on signal improvement, security and upgrading of trains,” he said.

Train commuters have on a daily basis put up with trains being late or cancelled and been exposed to danger. Sexual harassment of women on trains was also flagged as a threat to their security.

The blue trains for the Western Cape which were unveiled in April, according to Railway Safety Regulator’s acting CEO, Tshepo Kgare, are on trial still and she could not say when they will be on tracks.

Mbalula promised that the Prasa board will be fixed before the end of October. Prasa has been operating with an interim board since 2017. “We have been told that everyone at Prasa is implicated in corruption in that they steal day and night but we are going to fix things,” said Mbalula.

“If I fail at fixing passenger trains then I won’t wait for the night call from the President, I will simply pack my bags and go,” said Mbalula.

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