Concern after train fire

The train which caught fire on its way to Ottery station.

Commuters and organisations have lambasted the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) for the lack of safety and security on trains.

This comes after several people were injured and one died when trains on the southern and Cape Flats lines were set alight in the past two weeks.

The first train was torched on its way to Retreat station from Cape Town on Tuesday May 22 and the second on Wednesday May 30 at Ottery station on the way to Cape Town.

The family of one of the women who was badly injured in the Ottery train fire is praying for her recovery.

Leigh Jansen was on her way to work on the Foreshore on a Cape Flats line train at 8.40am.

It is believed a petrol bomb was thrown into the carriage Ms Jansen was travelling in between Ottery and Southfield stations.

Her screams alerted the driver who stopped the train and she was able to escape the fire by breaking and jumping through a window.

Three women were treated for minor burns but Ms Jansen has been on a ventilator at Tygerberg Hospital since the incident and is being treated for 3rd degree burns on her face and chest. She is also being treated for lung damage from inhaling soot while in the burning carriage.

An unidentified body was also found in the same carriage Ms Jansen was on.

Ms Jansen’s mother, Ursula Schenker, said her daughter usually takes a train from Plumstead station but on that morning she took a train from Southfield station. She was told that the train she usually takes on the southern line was faulty.

“It has been a very traumatising time and the incident has left us all, including her 10-year-old son, stunned but we are hoping and praying that Leigh makes a full recovery. Her eyes were swollen shut but have now opened,” said Ms Schenker.

She said her daughter was unable to speak because she is on a ventilator but was able to gesture what happened on the morning with hand signals.

“It is frustrating for her because she is such a bubbly person. She gestures with her eyes and hands,” said Ms Schenker.

She said her daughter is also trying to come to terms with the death of her fellow passenger. “Leigh spoke to the woman who died in the fire. She indicated that it was a heavy-set woman who wasn’t able to get through the window as she had,” said Ms Schenker.

Leslie van Minnen, chairperson of the Rail Commuters Action Group (RCAG), said the torching of trains is of great concern.

Mr Van Minnen’s 21-year-old son was fatally stabbed at Fish Hoek station in 2001 and he has been advocating for safety for commuters since.

He said the incidents at Ottery and Retreat stations are but one of many train fires reported in the country over the last couple of years.

“Unfortunately the country is on a slippery slide to a failed state. The criminality is out of the control of the state security structures. Train service’s are unsafe and unreliable and operates with limited train sets, yet trains are destroyed. Is this purely criminal acts or is there something more sinister to it? What are organs of state dong to put a stop to what can only be described as economic treason? ”

Mr Van Minnen said all organs of state concerned with commuter transport and the safety of the rail environment must be held accountable.

“Who else but the ministers of safety and security, police, transport as well as the board and senior management of PRASA/ Metrorail should be responsible under law to protect citizens and commuters.”

Mr Van Minnen said senior management, the ministry of security, police and transport must be prosecuted for criminal negligence and held liable.

“The RCAG is currently awaiting a decision from the NPA regarding exactly this scenario. We will continue to institute criminal charges against those who break the law crime and violence is rampant on our trains yet the state continues to fail its citizens. Our constitution makes it very clear that citizens, in this case commuters, are entitled to a safe environment free of threat and criminal actions,” he said.

He also questioned railway police and private security staff employed by PRASA.

“The RCAG has been in and out of court for 17 years, proving this negligence and incompetence. Why are they (PRASA and government) not acting? What are the PRASA Protection Service members, railway police and the thousands of contracted security staff employed for? What are they doing? Security staff are very seldom found on trains. This is but one of the critical issues,” said Mr Van Minnen.

He encouraged commuters to report every incident of criminal activity on trains and stations to police.

Commuter Jean van Rensburg said she fears taking the train to go to work.

“I have never been more fearful to take a train after the two train fires. Not only are the trains delayed or cancelled and we are already in danger of being robbed, now we have to worry about being set alight too. We need the trains to be safe.”

Police spokesperson, Captain FC van Wyk confirmed an inquest docket was opened for investigation after the body that was burnt beyond recognition was found.

PRASA regional manager Richard Walker said torching trains is intentional sabotage of state assets and a senseless and selfish act that has now led to injuries and even loss of life.

“We call on anyone with information or footage to share this with the police to assist them to bring the guilty to book. The public’s safety is compromised by these heartless criminals,” said Mr Walker.

Responding to claims that the recent arson attacks were as a result of incompetence and lack of security from PRASA , Metrorail spokeswoman Riana Scott said: “ All incidents are independently investigated by the police and Metrorail under the auspices of the Rail Safety Regulator – any findings or recommendations flowing from such investigations are implemented as corrective or preventive measures.”

Ms Schenker, a victim empowerment co-ordinator, said those responsible for the train arson attacks should be brought to book. She is also planning to start a group for victims of train incidents.

In May PRASA, the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape government department of Transport and Public Works signed a memorandum of agreement which will see the formation of a dedicated enforcement unit to focus on the safety and security of Metrorail commuters and infrastructure.

The details about how the dedicated enforcement unit will be funded, established and managed are addressed in a memorandum of agreement (MOA) which shows that the cost to establish and operate the unit for a period of 12 months is about R47.9 million. It will be jointly funded by the City, the Western Cape Government and PRASA and should be operational in the next two to three months.

Brett Herron, Mayco member for transport and urban development, said the unit will have at least 100 members and will focus on commuter safety as well as vandalism and the theft of crucial Metrorail infrastructure and assets.

“The ultimate goal is to address the safety and security issues so that we can stabilise the urban rail service in the short term,” said Mr Herron.

Mr Walker said the initiative will help speed up PRASA’s plans to improve their own Protection Services Department.

“The unit will have a two-pronged focus – primarily to deal with the vandalism, theft and illegal trade of non-ferrous metal and copper, and secondly to increase visible policing on trains and stations for improved commuter safety,” said Mr Walker.

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