IN DEPTH: Inside Metrorail’s cable theft and commuter crisis

2018-02-22 07:15
Armed security guards start patrolling a section of rail track in Cape Town which has been repeatedly targeted by criminals. (Supplied)

Armed security guards start patrolling a section of rail track in Cape Town which has been repeatedly targeted by criminals. (Supplied)

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Cape Town - Brazen thieves, who have effectively brought a critical rail route in Cape Town to a standstill for about six weeks, leaving thousands of commuters in the lurch, have become the focus of intense and unprecedented operations to squeeze out criminals who target beleaguered Metrorail's infrastructure.

As part of an extreme clampdown, dozens of extra private security personnel have been brought in. This involves officers armed with shotguns who monitor specific hotspots along railway lines. 

On Wednesday afternoon News24 saw dozens of security guards, many of them carrying shotguns, at Cape Town's central station. They were positioned near platforms and the entrances to these.

Drones are said to form a part of a broader security plan.

A dedicated enforcement unit, which will cost R45m to operate for a year, is also under discussion by the City of Cape Town, the Western Cape government and the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), as is a R45m bulletproof wall, aimed at trying to secure sections of rail.

On Wednesday morning, the body of a man was found near the train tracks in Bonteheuwel - a rail crime hotspot. It appeared he had been shot several times.

Police spokesperson Sergeant Noloyiso Rwexana said a murder case was under investigation and arrests were yet to be made. Wednesday was the first time the line was operational after services were suspended recently.

The acting head of Prasa, under which Metrorail falls, has previously labelled criminality targeting the rail operator in Cape Town as "high treason".

Critical route closure

In December, a critical commuter route for Metrorail - its central line between Khayelitsha and Cape Town - had to be suspended due to vandalism.

In early January, a Metrorail security guard was shot dead during a robbery in Khayelitsha, also causing operations along the line to be suspended.

READ: Metrorail guard shot dead in Cape Town

At the time, Metrorail's regional manager Richard Walker said: "Crime in the area continues to threaten Metrorail's ability to render a service to commuters in area central."

Armed guards are present at the station to deter criminals. (Supplied)

On Tuesday, sources told News24 the central line was one of the busiest and that it was the quickest and cheapest rail route into the Cape Town city centre, which catered to workers, scholars and students.

Zackie Achmat, of the Unite Behind coalition representing several non-governmental organisations and which is backing at least two court cases against Prasa, described the line closure as "an enormous crisis to all commuters".

'Cape Town cannot function without rail'

On Monday, Metrorail spokesperson Riana Scott said News24's queries about the situation, including how many commuters had been affected by the central line closure and what security measures were in place, would be addressed in a press statement, to be issued on Monday or Tuesday.

Late on Tuesday evening, Metrorail issued a press release, saying limited services would be reinstated along the central line.

Walker, in the statement, said 88 extra armed security guards had been deployed during the day and night "to enable technical teams to repair vital equipment and prevent further attacks on rail infrastructure".

"The suspension of the central service confirmed that Cape Town cannot function effectively without rail - it is a historic first integrated and comprehensive focus on the issues that derailed [an] essential service," he said.

Sources with close knowledge of the situation have told News24 that thieves have been targeting whatever they can lay their hands on - underground and overhead cables, as well as actual train tracks.

This, they say, has left Metrorail's infrastructure butchered. 

The thieves operate openly during the day in some cases, as well as between operations targeting them. A video of apparent cable thieves in action, supplied to News24, shows several men digging alongside tracks in Bonteheuwel during the day.

Thieves targeting 'everything'

News24 understands, based on information from several sources, that:

  • Private security personnel, armed with shotguns, are now monitoring certain hot spots.
  • The activities of criminals are now pre-empted and operations targeting them, while they are in the act of digging up cables, are being carried out.
  • Cable thieves, who work in highly-organised groups, have been repeatedly and systematically targeting certain areas. The Bonteheuwel split - a point where tracks split in the area - is a hotspot. Long stretches of cable, containing copper, have been dug up by thieves, who then sell it. These thieves dig trenches to get to the cable and operate during the day and night. Metres and metres of dug up trenches are visible on the sides of the tracks there.
  • Thieves have been targeting overhead cables and pieces of rail track in certain areas have been stolen.
  • Police have been working with at least one private security company to clamp down on the problems. The Red Ants security company, better known for carrying out court-ordered evictions, has been working to clamp down on cable thieves for about two weeks. The company declined to comment, however its Cape Town branch tweeted on Sunday that it was "deployed to stabilise theft of railway infrastructure on the central line". News24 also saw Red Ants security personnel at Cape Town's central train station on Wednesday.

Some sources believe, with intense intervention, the situation could be turned around in three months.

'Militaristic' plan

While some have welcomed the overall rail security plan, others have labelled it "militaristic".

Achmat on Tuesday told News24: "We are very deeply worried that the security plan is not only very high tech and militaristic, but it doesn't mention commuters."

Armed security guards start patrolling a section of rail track in Cape Town which has been repeatedly targeted by criminals. (Supplied)

He said rails should have been guarded, as they are now planned, from a decade or two ago.

Achmat said millions, if not billions of rand, had likely already been spent on companies who should have provided security.

New technology

Steve Harris, the United National Transport Union's (UNTU) general secretary, on Tuesday told News24 that Prasa had presented its security plan to UNTU.

Harris said armoured vehicles were being used to monitor certain sections of rail.

"[This is] already in place with armed people," he said. Other plans included the use of drones.

"We welcome these new tech methods," Harris said. 

He believed, if Prasa's full security plan was implemented, crime could be brought under control.

'High treason'

Prasa's acting group chief executive officer Cromet Molepo, speaking about vandalism in Cape Town in mid-January, had said the situation required "extreme measures".

"While people are quick to criticise Prasa, show me one rail operator in the world that is expected to operate under this condition... This is high treason to the people," he said.

In recent weeks, several people in positions of authority have voiced their concerns about Metrorail's security situation in Cape Town.

'Buckling under attacks'

Last Wednesday, February 14, Brett Herron, the City of Cape Town's transport and urban development mayoral committee member, said the City's public transport system was "buckling under the increasing attacks on critical infrastructure".

"It is not an exaggeration to warn that our public transport system could collapse if criminals are allowed to keep on sabotaging and undermining our services as is currently the case," he said.

Herron said the latest statistics from Prasa showed that there had been a 400% increase in vandalism and attacks regarding Metrorail's rolling stock over a year.

In the 2014/2015 financial year, 135 incidents were reported, Herron said. This increased to 668 incidents in the 2016/2017 financial year.

The problem was discussed in Parliament last week.

It was heard on Tuesday, February 13, that the Portfolio Committee on Transport had received written complaints from several organisations representing Cape Town train commuters, as well as hundreds of emails.

The acting chairperson of the committee, Leonard Ramatlakane, was scathing in his criticism of the train service. 

'We are failing commuters'

"We are simply failing the people of Cape Town, people struggling to go and make a living. They are being dismissed when they don't make it to work," he said. 

"We are frustrated, we are getting hundreds of emails from people asking about these trains. We don't have six months to sort out this thing and the state does have resources – why not dispatch engineers from other regions? Why do you want to continue sustaining the pain?"

Molepo had said, according to Ramatlakane, the central line would be reopened on Wednesday. However, the committee said the matter was an emergency and needed to be treated as such.

'A crisis'

"This situation is a crisis and necessitates a holding arrangement. While a permanent solution is being sorted out, Autopax (a subsidiary of Prasa) can dispatch buses to be used by the stranded commuters," a media release on the portfolio committee meeting said.

"Prasa must find additional resources to make sure that the central line is reopened."

Unite Behind had made a submission to the transport portfolio committee.

Prasa has itself for years been the centre of controversy. 

In August 2015, then-Public Protector Thuli Madonsela found evidence of maladministration, improper conduct, and nepotism within Prasa. This related to 37 initial complaints lodged by the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union in 2012. 

Unite Behind referred to this in its submission.

'Mired in mismanagement'

"Safety and security represents an urgent emergency and Prasa is mired in state capture, corruption, mismanagement and maladministration," it said.

"An urgent safety plan is needed to enable commuters to travel without constant fear of being crushed to death, thrown from the train or attacked by criminals."

Unite Behind called for adequate security and the protection of commuters to be prioritised.

"The lack of safety on our country's passenger trains is a daily nightmare," its submission said.

Unite Behind and its affiliate Equal Education, launched legal proceedings in the Western Cape High Court against, among others, the transport minister and Prasa. A date for the case has not yet been set.

It was also backing the Rail Commuters Action Group, which lodged a criminal complaint against Prasa in Muizenberg on Monday.

GroundUp reported that the case relates to the death of Keeno Abib, 19, on January 13 between the False Bay and Lakeside train stations. An eyewitness, according to GroundUp, said Abib jumped out of a moving train to get away from robbers.

On Friday, February 9, an urgent rail summit was held in Woodstock, Cape Town, where it agreed that a dedicated enforcement unit was to be established.

Afterward, the City of Cape Town, Western Cape government and Prasa issued a joint statement on the matter.

R90m plan to boost security 

This said details about how this unit would be funded, established and managed, would be detailed in a memorandum of agreement between Prasa, the City and Western Cape transport and public works department.

"The cost to establish and operate the unit for a period of 12 months is estimated at R45m," the statement said.

According to Herron, the City was willing to contribute R16m. Prasa, according to the statement, had agreed to contribute R3m monthly.

"The R3m contribution to the City is for the training and efficient deployment of about 1 500 security personnel," the statement said.

A bulletproof wall, which was expected to cost about R45m and which consists of two 15km sections on either side of critical sections of the central line, was also set to be constructed.

Night time arrests

In some recent arrests, three suspects were detained for digging for cables at the Bonteheuwel split late on Sunday.

On the night of January 23, three other suspects were also arrested there after police received a tip-off.

Police had said three were found with Prasa cables.

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Read more on:    metrorail  |  cape town  |  crime

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