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System intentionally derailed?

The latest incidents of train arson and vandalism have sparked concern over the future of one of the country’s biggest modes of transport.

Trains were set alight in three separate incidents last Friday 28 September, bringing the total of coaches lost to acts of arson to 47 this year alone, and more than 150 since 2015, according to Metrorail.

In a statement released on the official blog of the provincial railway operator following the incidents of sabotage, regional manager Richard Walker said the rate at which train coaches are lost to arson and vandalism far exceeds the rate at which they are able to introduce coaches back into service.

He said: “State assets, which are there to service the commuting public and are funded by the taxpayers, are being deliberately destroyed with impunity. The latest incidents further reduces the already limited number of train sets. Metrorail provides the most affordable means of public transport to the poorest of the poor and the impact of these losses will again be felt by them.”

Metrorail spokesperson Riana Scott said the current available train fleet varies between 35 and 40 train sets against the required 88 sets to service the timetable.

The train service was severely disrupted with delays and extended travel times on Strand, Wellington and Simon’s Town lines after six coaches were damaged and destroyed in Friday’s incidents. A train was set alight after midday at Mbekweni Railway Station near Paarl, followed by two further incidents at Firgrove and Cape Town railway stations, respectively.

According to Theo Layne, spokesperson for the City of Cape Town’s Fire and Rescue Services, 14 firefighters, two fire engines, a water tanker and rescue vehicle responded to the train ablaze in Firgrove shortly before 14:00. The same resources were dispatched to Cape Town at 14:20.

Layne said the cause of both fires are suspected arson. No injuries were reported. “At Firgrove, two coaches were destroyed, while one coach was destroyed and two damaged at Cape Town,” he said.

He added that the fire at Mbekweni is as result of an alleged armed robbery which went wrong.

According to Scott, the three affected train sets were expected to be back in service as of Tuesday 2 October, minus the damaged carriages. She said proposed short and medium-term solutions to the problem have been approved and are being funded by Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa).

“Prasa’s roll-out of the national rail modernisation programme is also under way and is aimed at replacing the entire train fleet and revitalising support infrastructure,” said Scott.

“It is widely acknowledged that crime is a problem in the province. Trains and stations are unfortunately not exempt from random and opportunistic criminal attempts. It is procedure to investigate each reported incident to determine corrective and preventive actions with resources available to us. All reported incidents are investigated to establish patterns, trends and hotspots, which assist with proactive deployment of resources.”

Scott further encouraged communities to support the process by providing intelligence to the police. The information provided by communities to date was instrumental in ensuring that 154 perpetrators currently await trial without bail being granted. Six have been already been successfully convicted and received jail sentences ranging from three to 30 years, Scott said.

She said: “Authorities cannot fight these fires without the assistance of civic-minded individuals and pleas are made to continue providing intelligence that will enable the police to arrest and courts to convict criminals. All reports are investigated and treated in strictest confidence and a reward of up to R25 000 is payable for any information leading to a successful conviction.

“Commuters were reeling under the onslaught against the biggest and most affordable mode of public transport – trains were once a punctual and reliable way of getting to work, but unremitting attacks on the system have left the region, the City and the province congested and unproductive.”

In light of the incidents, Brett Herron, Mayoral Committee Member for Transport and Urban Development, expressed his concern, “as our urban rail system is already operating at a fraction of the capacity it needs to service commuter demand.

“A total collapse of our Metrorail service is a prospect too ghastly to contemplate. The City and the Western Cape government have stepped forward to assist with the establishment of a dedicated rail enforcement unit. We did so because Metrorail commuters are our residents and their livelihoods depend on a safe, functional, and efficient rail service.”

Scott explained that Metrorail security resources on trains and stations are allocated strategically on a similar basis as general policing. She said police and security are not able to be everywhere at once – instead they are posted according to predetermined priority areas. The Rapid Rail Police Unit is also informed during weekly meetings to allocate static, mobile and/or undercover resources according to priorities determined at these meetings.

While Metrorail does not fall within its ambit, the Department of Transport and Public Works recognised its vital role and called on law enforcement agencies to investigate the cases for successful prosecution to take place.

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