Metrorail trains across SA at risk of coming to a stand still

2019-01-24 19:31
The Railway Safety Regulator is considering suspending Prasa’s safety permit again following a recent collision in Mountainview, Pretoria. (File photo: Ashraf Hendricks,  GroundUp)

The Railway Safety Regulator is considering suspending Prasa’s safety permit again following a recent collision in Mountainview, Pretoria. (File photo: Ashraf Hendricks, GroundUp)

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Following the fatal train collision in Mountainview, Pretoria that left four people dead and 620 injured earlier this year, the Railway Safety Regulator (RSR) is considering suspending the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa's (Prasa) safety permit again, GroundUp reports.

If the permit is suspended, Metrorail trains across the country will stop operating. According to Metrorail, about 1.4 million people use trains daily in Gauteng.

In October 2018, the RSR decided to suspend Prasa's safety operating permit following a train collision in Kempton Park that injured more than 300 people.

Prasa appealed to the Gauteng High Court in Pretoria and the court issued an order instructing Prasa to comply with the safety requirements set out by the RSR.

But the RSR allowed Prasa to continue operating, provided it met the requirements in the court order. One of the requirements was that Prasa submit a report explaining how it planned to improve safety on trains.

READ: Prasa welcomes revoking of suspension, pledges safety compliance

Prasa submitted a report but, according to RSR spokesperson Madelein Williams, the report did not meet the requirements. Williams said Prasa could not prove that it was able to control risks arising from its railway operations.

She said one of the main issues was driver fatigue and the frequent use of manual systems when automatic signalling broke down. When the automatic signalling system, which tells the train driver to stop or go — using a traffic light on the railway line — is out of order, manual train authorisation is necessary.

In that case, the train driver and control operator have to communicate to ensure that the railway lines are clear and safe for the train to proceed on the track. The train driver calls out the train number to the operator and the operator checks that the route is clear according to the schedule. The operator then authorises the train driver to continue on the route.

Williams said manual train authorisation had become the standard operating system in Gauteng. This was the result of cable theft, poor maintenance or a lack of spares for the automatic signalling system, and the installation of new signalling systems.

The last five train collisions in the country happened during manual authorisation

"Manual train authorisations is an accepted fall-back method of train operations during abnormal conditions, but it becomes a concern when it is applied for prolonged periods. In the instance of Prasa, the RSR has noted with concern that human error seems to occur frequently during periods of abnormal train operations due to fatigue setting in," Williams told GroundUp.

The last five train collisions in the country happened during manual authorisation, she said, including the Mountainview one. RSR said the line had been operating on manual train authorisation since November.

When GroundUp asked the RSR whether, in light of this accident, it intended to revoke or suspend Prasa's safety permit, Williams said RSR's attorneys were still considering the matter.

Gauteng Metrorail spokesperson, Lillian Mofokeng, said manual train authorisation was the standard in Gauteng due to the size and complexity of the network. She said the track was about 1 380 km long and was an open system that was prone to vandalism and theft of critical infrastructure.

When asked about the safety report, Mofokeng said Prasa was "continuously engaging with the RSR on all safety-related issues, with the safety report being part of this continuous engagement".

Mofokeng said Prasa was implementing a modernisation and resignalling programme that would ensure that the signalling system was automated.

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