Arson attacks on trains have cost the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) R636 million in the last three and a half years with most of the losses having been recorded in the Western Cape, which experienced 71% of the total attacks leading to R451 million in losses.
Even more appalling has been the total number of locomotives vandalised in 2017/18 alone with the figure currently standing at a staggering 1496 coaches.
These shocking statistics were shared with the Portfolio Committee on Transport on Tuesday by Prasa, as the state-owned enterprise’s board and management briefed the committee on some of the strategies it intended on employing in dealing with the plague of train arson attacks.
Prasa board chairperson, Khanyisile Kweyama, likened train arson attacks to “a national security threat” and urged the State Security Agency to intervene and assist with intelligence gathering, investigation and identifying the threat.
Kweyama also called on the police’s national crime intelligence to investigate the arson attacks.
During the briefing, Prasa officials revealed that its passenger numbers had almost halved in the last four years, dropping from 543 million commuters in 2013/14 to 269 million regular users in 2017/18.
The “root cause for the drop in commuters, commuter backlash and possible burning of trains is delays and cancellations,” said Kweyama.
Prasa chief executive Sibusiso Sithole also fingered the lack of trains, which has decreased from 288 sets in 2013/14 to 200 by the end of 2017/18, as another cause for concern for the passenger rail agency.
Both Kweyama and Sithole agreed that Prasa needed to utilise modern technology in order to inform passengers in advance of possible delays so as to alleviate the frustration faced by commuters.
The two suggested the use of the utility’s Twitter account and the roll-out of an app for the metros.
As this announcement was being made, the last post made from the Prasa Group Twitter account was on July 18 and the account does not demonstrate regular use.
Besides better communication with commuters, Kweyama indicated that Prasa’s instability was also in part due to a number of vacancies at managerial level.
“The first layer of management appointments will be finalised by the end of November,” assured Kweyama.
Kweyama acknowledged that corruption within Prasa was another destabilising factor, but said she will brief the committee on planned disciplinary measures “later”, with no media present.
Since the number of train attacks got out of hand, Prasa has deployed 88 armed guards to accompany Cape Town train crews.
Last month, Prasa also suspended all its operations in KwaZulu-Natal identifying incidents where drivers had been intimidated, assaulted and trains being hijacked as the reasons that led to the suspension of the services.
Safety permit suspended
Regardless of these measures instituted by Prasa, the Rail Safety Regulator (RSR) has concluded that Prasa “cannot demonstrate that it has the ability, commitment and resources to assess properly and control effectively the safety risks arising from its railway operations”.
This has led to the regulator’s suspension of Prasa’s safety permit on October 4, following a train collision on October 3 in which 320 people were injured in Kempton Park, Ekurhuleni.
RSR gave Prasa 48 hours to wrap up operations and inform its passengers, staff and contractors of the decision to halt its services.
The decision would have left millions of people stranded, as Prasa’s commuter unit, Metrorail, transports about 1.7 million people per weekday.
Prasa, however, challenged the suspension in the High Court in Pretoria.
The application for an urgent interim court order to lift the suspension of the safety permit imposed by the regulator meant that it was permitted to continue operating until the matter has been heard on Thursday.
The court has since ordered Prasa and the regulator to present immediate steps to tackle safety issues to the court on Monday.