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Ian Van Zyl
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Off the rails, off the record: Metrorail mum on derailment

19 March 2014, 12:34
Commuters on Cape Town's busy urban rail network face delays and service disruptions on a daily basis. We have become accustomed to the terminology by now - they are like old friends. The names of the usual suspects are announced without fail on PA systems: "failed in-section", "defective track circuits", "sets out of service", "signalling problem", "defective points". And as a consequence the repercussions follow shortly after: "has been cancelled", "is delayed by X minutes", and ultimately, "Metrorail apologises for the inconvenience". This week saw the welcoming of a new rascal in our ranks. He shall be named "infrastructure problem", and he currently resides at Cape Town Station. His presence is felt all over the network, as trains are delayed on most of the lines. Almost half of the platforms at Cape Town Station are out of service while the "infrastructure problem" is being dealt with. Little - in fact nothing - has been said about how this situation came to be.
On the evening Saturday, 15 March, the train from Kapteinsklip (most likely the 9552) derailed as it was creeping into Cape Town Station, fully laden with passengers, many of them on their way to the carnival parade. Chaos ensued. There was hysteria as people forced open the doors, jumped off the stationary train and made their way across the tracks to the nearest platform. We assisted elderly passengers to get to the safety of the platform. Some people were injured. Behind us sparks were flying and the grass had been set alight. We stood there looking at the derailed train and the evident damage to the tracks and overhead cables, feeling lucky to have come off relatively unscathed. 
But where were the Metrorail or PRASA officials? Where were the emergency response teams? The answer is simple: they were nowhere to be seen.  A lone figure with a fire extinguisher made his way to the wreckage. And that was that. No announcement followed. Nobody came to assess the extent of injuries. Nobody took the details of passengers who had travelled on the ill-fated train. 
To this day, there is no press release on the websites of PRASA, Metrorail or GoMetro. Just the by now familiar name "infrastructure problem". 
As I read about another level crossing incident this very morning, I cannot help but think that a major mishap is imminent. Has Metrorail become so nonchalant about the deterioration of its track record that it does not deem a derailment a major event any more? More worryingly, I dread to think about Metrorail's ability to respond in case of emergency. What measures are in place to deal with injury and the potential life-threatening accident scene?
Moreover, as PRASA has already proudly adopted the imagery of future trains in its marketing material and even name badges of staff, what is being done to make the infrastructure safe (as a matter of urgency) for those trains to travel on? Metrorail's standard response is that years of underinvestment in infrastructure has caused the current problems, and that we should have a safe and reliable train service in about twenty years.
Is it then not time for Minister Dipuo Peters, as well as PRASA and Metrorail to shout it from the rooftops: "Our rail infrastructure is crumbling!"? How else are we going to get Treasury to get serious about allocating enough funds for an entire overhaul of our urban rail network? Or must we be satisfied with being fed this fuzzy nonsense about there being an "infrastructure problem"? How long before we grow accustomed to hearing "Trains on the Central Line are delayed due to an earlier derailment in which X passengers died. Metrorail apologises for the inconvenience"?
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