Blaze another blow to train service

A train was set alight when it pulled into Retreat station last week.

The Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) is running at about half of its coach capacity and commuters are feeling the strain.

Less than half of Prasa’s train coaches are left to run a proper service after another train was set alight. On Thursday July 26, five carriages were gutted when when a burning train pulled into Retreat station at about 10.30am.

This was the second train fire incident for the week. On Saturday July 21, six coaches were burnt when a train was set alight at Cape Town station. Platform cabling was damaged, totalling a loss of about R30 million.

This totals five train fire incidents since the beginning of the year. A woman died and another was badly injured when a train was set alight at Ottery station in May.

In last week’s incidents at Retreat and Cape Town no injuries were reported.

Metrorail employees had to separate the burning carriages from the rest of the train to prevent further damage.

An investigation was launched into both incidents.

Steve Harris, general secretary of the United National Transport Union (UNTU), said Prasa faces blatant sabotage.

“At this moment Metrorail is left with just 40 train sets of the 88 train sets needed to run a proper service. This means that overcrowding of trains and the delays of the service become worse with every passing minute,” he said.

Untu represents the majority of employees working for Prasa, the operator of Metrorail.

The union called on police to appoint a task team to investigative who is behind the ongoing arson attacks.

On Friday July 27, Transport Minister Blade Nzimande visited the Cape Town station.

He also visited the Prasa depot in Paarden Eiland to assess the damaged trains, accompanied by Transport MEC Donald Grant and the City’s mayoral committee member for transport and urban development, Brett Herron.

Mr Nzimande said train vandalism in the Western Cape would be prioritised and that Prasa already spent a lot of money on security.

“It looks like we are not getting value for money and this really needs to be addressed but it’s broader than that. We need to look short to medium term as to what needs to be done in order to secure the trains. We are not just ensuring the trains but we’re actually ensuring the people, the passengers, the working class who are making use of the trains,” Mr Nzimande.

But Mr Harris said the minister’s time would have been better spent seeking solutions to the ongoing arson attacks.

He said more than a million workers in the Western Cape had no other alternative but to rely on trains to get them to and from work.

“The person or persons who is behind the arson attacks are taking bread out of the mouths of the families they have to feed,” he said.

Prasa has condemned the “senseless destruction of its trains”.

Khanyisile Kweyama, chairperson of Prasa’s board of control, said the parastatal was concerned about what appeared to be a pattern of train fires in the Western Cape.

“Prasa has, in the last few months, been hard at work to try and recover the service in the Western Cape, particularly the Central Line, and this incident sets us backward. If there is an element of criminality surrounding this latest incident, it is the most senseless act against the only public transport system that is affordable to the masses of commuters who rely on this service”, she said.

Sibusiso Sithole, Prasa group CEO, said he visited the region recently to determine the amount of work that needed to be done to stabilise the rail service in Cape Town.

“We have already been considering deploying the new trains to Cape Town to bolster the ageing fleet.

“Cape Town is a very important region for Prasa because of the high rail commuter take up when compared to the rest of the four regions, but we are now seriously concerned whether it will be wise to send our new trains down there when the situation is still this volatile,” said Mr Sithole.

He added that a high level team would be sent to assess the situation.

Mr Harris requested police Minister Bheki Cele to appoint a task team to probe the spate of arson attacks.