The United National Transport Union (UNTU) on Tuesday painted a horrific picture of the state of commuter rail services in South Africa with whole trains being hijacked on a weekly basis by frustrated passengers who just want to get to their destination.
UNTU is the majority union at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa). Its spokesperson Sonja Carstens addressed a media briefing hosted by the National Press Club in Pretoria.
Prasa, the South African Police Services and the Railway Safety Regulator (RSR) were invited but declined to participate in the event, National Press Club deputy chair Willem van der Putte said.
Carstens said these organisations are fully aware of the dire state of the commuter service and were absent because they don’t want to answer questions about the matter.
She said the same conditions would never be allowed to persist at airports or relating to air travel, but Prasa’s passengers were the poorest of the poor and simply not a priority.
She said rail safety of passenger trains is deteriorating daily to such an extent that it is only a question of time before another serious train accident occurs.
Passenger trains are being hijacked on a weekly basis when commuters force the train driver to continue on an unknown route and Prasa is keeping quiet about it, she said.
This happens when commuters are so frustrated with train delays that they force the driver with a gun or knife or by throwing stones at him, to take them where they want to go.
Listen to a recording of a train driver under attack at Germiston station in January this year. He is begging control room staff to open the tracks to enable him to obey angry passengers who attacked him with stones and hijacked the train. (Source: UNTU)
As a result of such hijacking, the train proceeds on a track that it is not scheduled to be on. Controllers have to hastily change signals to prevent the train from colliding with other trains scheduled to travel on the same track.
Carstens said there was no guarantee that controllers would always be able to prevent collisions under such conditions.
“The train drivers are trained on specific routes. Before they drive a new route, they undergo training. When commuters force a train driver to continue [on] a route unknown to him or her, the train driver drives blind. They don’t know where there are signals or a turn or a steep curve on the route. When they must drive a train like this, they can easily derail the train, which could result in fatalities,” UNTU general secretary Steve Harris said in a statement issued after the briefing.
According to UNTU the situation got worse after the Railway Safety Regulator (RSR), the watchdog of train safety, allowed Prasa to operate trains with manual authorisation, but on the condition that the train does not increase its speed to more than 30km per hour.
The speed restriction was introduced to ensure train safety after the RSR found that human error was to blame for two collisions in the East Rand within six months following the introduction of manual authorisation, UNTU stated.
Carstens said the rationale was that at the lower speed, train drivers would at least be able to spot another train on the same track in time to stop his or her train.
According to the union, Prasa is unable to replace all its broken signals and do away with manual authorisation due to the constant criminal activities and vandalism of the rail infrastructure.
“The Rapid Rail unit of the South Africa Police Service (SAPS) lacks the expertise and the crime intelligence to combat the copper theft by international crime syndicates who are targeting the rail infrastructure because it is such a soft target,” Harris said.
“Although UNTU agrees with the RSR’s approach to put train safety first (by imposing the speed limit), the union does not believe that the current situation must be allowed to continue.
“Due to the manual authorisation process, the trains are delayed from the word go in the morning. Where the last train is supposed to be in the yard in Vereeniging at 22:00 at night, it only comes in after 24:00. This is a more than two-hour delay.
“The delays contribute to the overcrowding of trains where commuters sit anywhere on the coach just to drive along, like the situation on the notorious Central line in the Western Cape before UNTU brought the service to a halt on January 8.
“The constant delays make commuters furious as they are constantly late for work. This is when they attack train crews and even torch train coaches,” says Harris.
According to Carstens, trains are also frequently attacked by robbers who access the trains travelling with open doors, which is unlawful. They regularly attack at red signals or at stations. UNTU members and passengers are robbed of their belongings and the problem has escalated to such an extent that train drivers don’t travel with their cell phones anymore.
UNTU says the situation can only be prevented if all the stakeholders take hands like they did in the Western Cape to stabilise the Central Line. This only happened after UNTU withdrew its labour and stopped trains from running for about five weeks.
The parties reached a collective agreement for the Central line where police accompany train crews to safeguard them and where armed security are deployed on the platforms of stations and along railway lines to secure the safety of commuters and train crews.
UNTU calls for the same measures to be introduced on commuter trains countrywide.