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System failures, train fires: Why Metrorail is in dire straits

2018-10-23 00:45

Cape Town mayoral committee member for safety and security JP Smith summed up the city’s embattled rail infrastructure this way: “People talk as if Prasa [the Passenger Rail Agency of SA] must still collapse. It has already collapsed.”

Once upon a time Metrorail was the backbone of transportation in the Western Cape. No longer is the rail company the prime mover of most of those who contribute towards the economy in the province.

Commuters are subjected to daily train cancellations and, for those fortunate to get a train, it is almost always delayed.

Most delays are caused by obsolete infrastructure, the result of decades of disinvestment in passenger rail.

To make matters worse, there are daily incidents of vandalism and, since October 2015, there have been frequent train-related fire incidents.

Commuters no longer depend on Metrorail because the failures of the rail agency are forcing them to make use of their own alternative transport
Dan Plato, Cape Town’s mayor in waiting

In January, Prasa went as far as to admit that the system had derailed and that it was unable to guarantee a safe journey to commuters.

Fast-forward 10 months to the beginning of October, and the Railway Safety Regulator (RSR) issued a suspension notice to Prasa which read: “Prasa Rail cannot demonstrate confidence to the RSR that it has the ability, commitment and resources to properly assess and effectively control the risks arising from its railway operation – to the detriment of the safety of those who may be affected by its railway operations.”

Two days later, Prasa dragged the RSR to court in a bid to stop the regulator’s intention to cancel train operations. In a supervisory order, Prasa was told by the Pretoria High Court to “stick to the safety requirements of the RSR or end up being cancelled”.

Judge Cassim Sardiwalla said: “This is a case of national importance. Prasa is responsible for creating a safe rail environment for employees and commuters.”

This reiterates a 2015 Constitutional Court ruling that Prasa had an obligation to protect commuters from any form of incident.

The directive by the RSR relates to the ever-increasing number of manual authorisations of trains. This means Prasa’s maintenance management is not improving.

Said Prasa spokesperson Nana Zenani: “At least 33% – or 165 488 – of the manual authorisation incidents in the country are because of the vandalism of signal equipment and cable theft.”

In terms of the court order, Prasa is obliged to give monthly written progress feedback to the RSR and the judge. The rail operator may also not deploy or use new rolling stock without prior approval by the RSR.

Furthermore, a comprehensive integrated asset condition assessment report – for all of Prasa’s railway infrastructure – needs to be handed over to the RSR by March 2019.

Firefighters try to salvage what remains of a burnt-out carriage. Picture: Jonathan Lestrade / Die Son

Metrorail Western Cape spokesperson Riana Scott was initially not keen to respond to a list of questions regarding train operations, security and customer communication, and their direct effect on commuters, staff and stakeholders.

Zenani referred all questions on the state of Metrorail Western Cape to the regional manager, Richard Walker.

However, after doing so, Scott said: “Resignalling for the Cape Flats Line and Southern Line between Salt River and Fish Hoek is complete. Central and North have yet to commence.”

When asked about plans to start on other lines, Scott said she could only respond with the information she had available.

On the effects of resignalling, Scott explained: “Experience has shown that the inadvertent impact of migration to new technologies has sporadic service system failures as part of commissioning and testing new technology.”

This, together with old infrastructure, has largely contributed to major service disruptions.

While Metrorail and Prasa have yet to admit as much, frequent commuter experience has shown that until upgrades have been completed, commuters are in for a tough ride.

Customer communication – the one thing Metrorail can control – does not seem to be a priority. This is also evident from the hundreds of complaints that have appeared on social media.

In August 2017, Walker admitted to members of the Western Cape provincial legislature’s standing committee on transport that “Metrorail is not communicating enough with commuters”.

According to Scott: “Customer concerns are assessed and efforts are made to educate, elaborate on and explain issues.”

Like her boss, Scott conceded that many complaints relate to lack of communication.

“Trains have no on-board announcement capability,” she said. “This leaves Metrorail reliant on SMSes via an external service provider, on social media and on centralised announcements.”

Plato, who attempted to catch a train this week from Mitchells Plain to Cape Town station to experience first-hand what train commuters are subjected to, said:

Until problems at top level are resolved, it is commuters who will continue to suffer because of a lack of action.

In February, Economic Freedom Fighters MP Nontando Nolutshungu told Prasa: “Commuters only want to know how you take them to work or home, and what are you doing if trains are cancelled. There should be a simple plan.”

DA MP Manny de Freitas was less diplomatic, saying: “Prasa has no clue what is happening on their tracks. This justifies the frustration among commuters.”

In addition to the vandalism, Metrorail Western Cape has lost half its train sets in fire-related incidents since October 2015.

It remains a mystery who is behind the suspected arson attacks at Metrorail. All stakeholders agree it is a well-orchestrated plan to destroy rail transportation.

Commuters are asking how it is that trains burn, even with a security presence on platforms.

In the province, Metrorail has only 1 845 security officials. Of these, 789 are employed by Prasa; the rest are contracted security.

In support of these officers, a joint project by the city, the Western Cape government and Prasa was meant to be launched this week. There was, however, a twist: The deployment of the City’s rail unit was delayed as it was still awaiting permission to operate on Prasa infrastructure.

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February 16 2020