Forced action after rail and train damages

One of the trains that was set alight at Retreat station last month.

Two people who have both lost sons to crime on Metrorail lines say they doubt an extra 100 guards to protect trains and passengers will do much good.

Last week, the City of Cape Town said it had started recruiting 100 law-enforcement officers for a pilot Rail Enforcement Unit, following a wave of arson – at least seven cases so far this year – that has seen scores of train carriages torched, causing millions of rand in damage.

The City, Province and the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) will jointly pick up the
R48 million tab for the unit’s operational costs, according to JP Smith, mayoral committee member for safety, security and social services.

The unit, he said, should be on the ground by October, at the latest, and would work closely with the SAPS to unmask metal thieves.

Meanwhile, the provincial Department of Community Safety is offering a R100 000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those behind the arson attacks.

Arson damage to trains over the past four months has cost about
R50 million, and at least R210 million over the past five years, according to a joint statement from Premier Helen Zille and Community Safety MEC Dan Plato.

It said Prasa needed 88 train sets to run an effective service but had fewer than 40 because of arson, cable theft and vandalism.

“The sabotaging of people’s daily commuting system is a direct attack on freedom of movement and has serious knock-on effects for the Western Cape economy and productivity. The organised criminal elements behind these attacks must be exposed,” said Ms Zille.

Mr Plato had this warning for the arsonists: “You are being watched; you will be caught, and we will not allow you to derail this province.”

In the latest incidents, a fire destroyed two locomotives (motor coaches), 12 coaches and damaged two platforms at Cape Town station on Saturday July 21 .

Five more coaches were gutted at Retreat station on Thursday July 26.

Then, on Saturday July 28, there was a second fire, exactly a week after the first, at Cape Town station. This time two coaches were torched and another two were damaged.

And on Tuesday July 31, a man was arrested trying to set fire to a train at Cape Town station.

Last week, the Rail Safety Regulator refused to renew Prasa’s safety permit. It later issued a temporary one but not before giving Prasa management a dressing-down.

Leslie van Minnen, the chairman of the Rail Commuters Action Group (RCAG), has been fighting for commuter safety since his 21-year-old son, Juan, was stabbed fatally on a southern-line train in 2001.

He said he would love for the unit to make a difference but after 17 years in the RCAG he had his doubts.

He said that taking the 100 officers’ working hours and days off into account, it would probably leave 60 available for deployment over two shifts of eight to nine hours each, which meant 30 extra people per shift to cover the entire province.

“If one takes into account the continued issues of crime in the past six months along with the burning of trains that the state security structures have failed to address, then one must ask if another 100 guards for the entire Western Cape will make a difference?” he said.

He said it was not only about addressing crime on stations and trains but about stopping fraud and corruption within the system.

“Once this is addressed there will be funds available to supply a proper and safe rail commuter system,” he said

Prasa spent millions of rand a month on poorly trained security guards, he said.

Deploying a few extra trained guards, he said, would not solve the problem.

He suggested Prasa hire properly trained security guards and have its own security department, reporting to its management and possibly also to the ministers of police and transport.

Shamese Abib, the mother of a Sharedon Park man, Keeno Peterson-Abib, 19, who jumped from a moving train in January to escape four robbers agreed that 100 extra guards would make little difference. She felt there should be 100 properly trained guards on each line.

“The current guards are not skilled enough,” she said.

She said she suspected the guards would prioritise Prasa’s assets over passengers.

“The commuters have been suffering for many years and had to carry the brunt of crimes committed against them and their loved ones. It can take years to claim for damages done, which they know. They handle people’s lives with less importance than the trains that are getting damaged,” she said.