Continued high levels of crime on certain urban rail corridors may “eventually leave the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) with no choice” but to cancel its services on these routes, says the agency.
The State-owned PRASA says while it continues to engage with the dedicated rapid rail police unit, it believes that “more needs to be done to support [the agency] in protecting its assets”.
Legislation changes that allow for harsher sentences for rail related crimes, such as copper and steel theft, would, for example, be helpful.
PRASA management also “calls for stronger dialogue around the management of public transport crimes” and the increased reporting of such crimes in order to “bring this matter the necessary attention it deserves”.
PRASA says it is in “full support” of the observation made by the United National Transport Union (UNTU) on Tuesday that the agency is sitting on a “ticking time bomb”.
Recent criminal activities affecting PRASA include the theft of rail clippers that anchor rail tracks to the ground, the theft and bombing of electrical transformers, as well as numerous attacks on staff.
To date, PRASA has experienced lengthy closures of the Western Cape’s central line, as a result of vandalism, largely aimed at harvesting copper cables.
The introduction of 88 private armed guards on this route has led to an attack in an attempt to steal the guns and ammunition carried by the guards.
Countrywide, continued cable theft also means that PRASA has to make use of manual authorisation for trains to continue, instead of fully working signalling systems.
If this process was not allowed, 2.6-million passenger trips across three provinces would be affected.
Manual authorisation has, however, led to a number of accidents on the PRASA network.
PRASA said its primary legislative mandate is to provide commuter rail services. It says its ability to respond to crime is limited by insufficient funding.
UNTU on Tuesday warned that it was only a matter of time before PRASA would be forced to face another derailment or serious accident on its Metrorail lines.
UNTU represents the majority of employees within PRASA.
UNTU spokesperson Sonja Carstens said that train hijackings had seen a sharp rise this year.
She could not provide numbers, but noted that feedback from UNTU members indicated that it was an almost weekly event.
A train hijacking occurs when commuters, faced with long delays, force the train driver to continue on a route of their choice, or without waiting for the appropriate safety clearance. These threats happened at gunpoint, with the use of a knife, or by commuters threatening to torch the train.
Carstens said control officers had, to date, been able to stop other trains on the network, set on a collision course with the hijacked train, through the use of red signals.
However, she warned that hijacked trains were an accident waiting to happen, as a train was on a route it was not supposed to be, at a time when it was not supposed to be there.
She said UNTU believed it was the task of the South African Police Service to keep PRASA staff and commuters safe from crime.