Proudly sponsored by

Union blows whistle on hijacking of commuter trains

‘Prasa is sitting on a ticking time-bomb.’
The damaged cabin of a train attacked in Pretoria on March 13. Picture: UNTU

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.

Please consider contributing as little as R20 in appreciation of our quality independent financial journalism.



Sort by:
  • Oldest first
  • Newest first
  • Top voted

You must be signed in to comment.


Sh..hole African country springs to mind. This sort of mismanagement of a SOE is just another opportunity for the EFF to solicit votes.

This is the culmination of many years of ANC corruption and mismanagement.

And this is just one example of many.

…and this is the visible infrastructure, think of what is not visible, water and sewage, motorway bridge support struts etc etc

Welcome to Africa

and many many more years of incompetence and mismanagement still to follow….cheers!

Antoinette, I wish you would follow up this article with an interview with the responsible minister, Blaize Nzimande. There is an amazing letter on the Daily Maverick to him challenging him to catch a train from Khayalitsha to central Capetown. This was in response to him saying that commuter services with PRASA was his priority.

The fact remains that it is ordinary folk who rely on public transport. They are powerless which is why they now resort to hijacking.

Criminals have ruined it. I don’t see existing public rail services improving at all.

Sad state of affairs. Crime, poverty and incompetence all coming together to destroy a service that could be useful. I can’t imagine the desperation of being poor. There are so many underlying issues here that I think there is little that can be done in the short term, we are just seeing symptoms.

Its funny, for years all those white liberals told us “all you need to do to solve all SA’s problems, is to give every man a vote”. It turns out it was a little more complicated than just that. Besides most of those white liberals are now sitting in Sydney or London…

So having a dictatorship of whites governing black people will solve all problems? Mmm we kind of tried that one it ended up with the country nearly bankrupt and on the brink of civil war. Things were not better under white rule – for black and white people. Come off it mate, it is opinions like yours that make black people think whites are racist oafs longing for this mythical past where everthing was wonderfull. Just as much as it is a myth that SA was paradise before the evil whites arrived. Reality is that SA have always had its problems and we need to think about solutions rather than go on the typical “I told you so these damn blacks cant run anything” rant.

…so what you imply, you find current events totally acceptable. (property destruction/criminality/state corruption). Fine then.

When things in SA continue to heat up / getting too close for comfort in future….let me guess…I recon you and your family will end up in a well-governed foreign country where Western society is the accepted norm, right?

You are right we should rather look for solutions than identify problems.Agreed, trains must be on time, children must go to school and ministers shouldn’t take bribes. However, every time a white person criticises a failure of such things, he is branded as a “racist and opposed to transformation” regardless of the merits of what he says. We put people into jobs that they can’t possibly do and PRETEND that it is is a victory for transformation. Just look at Hlaudi Motsoeneng (SABC), Lucky Montana (Prasa), Brian Molefe (Transnet and Eskom), Dudu Muyeni (SAA), Bathabile Dlamini (Minister for Social development) etc. Having had pass laws, influx control and Homelands were big mistakes and I wish the NP never made those mistakes. However, SA must be the only country in the world where people can hijack a train without any consequences whilst PRASA execs are earning millions. That is simply a different cloud cuckoo land than the Homelands but still nothing short of crazy.


no, it is replies like yours that stoke the hatred — nowhere in jnrb’s post did he say what you accuse him of…

You forgot about Perth-The first choice for the long ago liberals.Progressive Federal Party (packing for Perth)

Yup, they were the first to bolt… although I still believe in democracy and liberalism. But you need strict law enforcement and most importantly, a general attitude of respect for others and law and order to make it work!

In my opinion, the problem could be a cultural one. The ANC miinisters governing these departments do not take active responsibility, they merely preside. We saw this with Gigaba yesterday. Until ministers take real responsibility nothing will change. And as it is probably cultural, there is no hope of change either.

Needs to come from the top. No-one will take responsibility until you make a few examples. If you are prone to taking accountability then that quickly stops once you realise you keep getting nailed, yet your colleagues can get away with things if they keep quiet. In that case you start keeping quiet too.

I have more faith that CR will start to hold people accountable than the previous prez.

Civilised people do not hijack trains, no matter how desperate they are to get somewhere. Period.

Student mischief? / ‘Studente pret’? 🙁

Most sensible comment today. Add ‘no need to fear for consequences of your actions’ to it.

…for sure! That’s why Europe (even old Communist Eastern Europe) has such beautifully preserved old historic buildings. Count in also Asian countries, China, Korea, Japan, Thailand, etc…they preserve and protect.

In Africa, all the buildings & infrastructure gets ruined over time (’s foreign to us African’s culture. Western infrastructure is “resisted” against. Want proof? Travel from here to Sahara.

Africa is a beautiful & resource rich continent. Logic then tells me there must be something wrong with its people?


You, sir, have clearly not tried to negotiate the CPT train system recently – it is more than enough to drive a sane and civilised man (or woman) to savagery.

Question: is this plain CRIMINALITY (that the authorities are soft on)…or…is it manifestation of an ongoing Low Intensity Civil War?


This absolutely shameful… as teenagers in the late 70s my brother and I travelled from Durban to Jo’burg by train to spend time with my uncle. Overnight, no adult supervision other than the friendly Transnet staff. What a different picture we have today.

In other news Derek Hanekom new tourism minister blathers on about racism.

In this article black racism through cadre deployment has destroyed transport.

What is Cyril doing? Squat as usual.

BTW when did we last get a moneyweb article about the horrors of farm genocide?

Place plainclothes cops on these trains and simply shoot these hijackers.
i was once told by a gentleman from China that cable thieves in his country are simply executed when caught, because it is considerd high treason.
this useless government of ours goes out of it’s way to satisfy these barbarians and punish white law abiding citizens at every turn.
boy i wish i had left in ’95 when i had the chance, this country is approaching anarchy.

In 1995 the ZAR/USD exchange rate was R3,60 to the $ 🙂

As an ex-railway engineer, I recall escorting a deputation from British Rail (Derby research centre) on the rail network in the then Eastern Transvaal (circa 1978/80). I clearly recall their extremely positive comments apropos the high quality of the railway system (SAR&H in those days), particularly the electric traction, signalling and telecommunication infrastructures. The only difference between S.A. and European railways in those days was the absence of high speed trains in this country.
How the times have changed!!!

And while we traditionally consider Chinese products as inferior/beneath us…a quick Google search on “Chinese bullet trains” will blow one’s mind.

SA has gone THAT FAR behind (…the Chinese are certainly not lacking in discipline to achieve national greatness)

One thing SA has in common with China’s rail system, is the word “bullet”: their train technology has reached the speed of a bullet, while back in good ‘ol SA, you have bullets flying in a train coach…

Chinese were considered non-white in the good old days Michael unlike Japanese that were of course honorary white people. So it would have been a tad tricky in the wonderfull days of Apartheid for us to buy trains from non-whites dont you think? Of course we could merely make them temporary honourary whites like we did for the rebel West Indian cricket team that came in the 80’s.

Mind you, we did cosy up to the Taiwanese when nobody else liked us. The we tried to fly chemicals/weapons to SA from aboard the Helderberg which then exploded mid-air killing 159 innocent people on its way back from Taiwan.

Sigh how I long for those days – everything was just so much more logical then!

Great if you were a white person travelling in first class – not so great if you were a black person forced to travel third class on a hard wooden bench. I abhore identity politics and people shouthing racism in every debate but I just think we as white middle class citizens need to take a look at what we say. If you go through this thread dispassionately – the general conclusion seems to be that “they” i.e. black people cannot manage anything and that “we” i.e. white people should manage everything and that things were much better under apartheid.

I do not for one moment disagree that there are problems. Bringing back apartheid is however not a solution. It is just sad that nobody has really moved on in nearly 30 years. Black people still blame all deficiencies on the legacy of apartheid and white people still – at least according to this thread – see apartheid SA as an utopia and black people as fit to be only labourers, not fit to manage anything.

The conclusion that I do agree with is SA is pretty much stuffed because you have idiots from both sides still seeing everything through a racial prism.

The Afrikaners certainty did move on…for example most by now would’ve forgiven what the British did during the Anglo-Boer War scorched earth policy, incl. the death of 28 000 Boer women & children (and 18,000 farm laborers…in separate concentration camps nogal!)

That was estimated almost to be a tenth of the Boer population at the time. Did the Afrikaners killed the same number of Africans (even as a %) during Apartheid? In fact, though the clever Homelands scheme, African population thrived.

But we’re expected to forget the Boer War atrocities. (Hence no wonder the Africans won’t forgive the whites/Afrikaners in a long time)

The nation with the most tainted world history must be the British Empire. The Brits ‘royally’ stuffed up on a global scale….between 12 and 29 million Indians died of starvation while it was under the control of the British Empire, as millions of tons of wheat were exported to Britain as famine raged in India; causing famine in Ireland in the 1800’s; During the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya (1950’s) it’s estimated 20-100,000 Kenians died under the British flag; When the “most civilized nation on earth” declared independence to Pakistan & when India’s borders were partitioned 1947, leaving Kashmir to be contested by both countries, causing 3 wars to date.
Many trace the Israel-Palestine dispute back to Britain’s decision in 1917 to establish a “national home for the Jewish people” in the territory then known as Palestine.
The borders of many Middle Eastern states were also drawn by Britain. The badly-defined and highly unstable border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan was also largely defined by Britain in the late 19th century.
Please don’t talk to me about the (accepted) ills of Apartheid by the Afrikaners. Funny, the Brits hardly ever accept guilt do they?

(Perhaps I can bring in comment from a French historian, then we can take this even further down history.)

Not much to be proud of.

Yes, one cannot dwell in the past, but one must realize where one comes from. Dare I say it, it seems that the Africans has the lesser tainted history despite all the tribal wars.

Accept current day South Africa for what it is. Very little will change it. If there was a real solution, it would’ve been found long long ago.

End of comments.





Follow us:

Search Articles:
Click a Company: