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Pretoria - Metrorail has claimed the train accident that resulted in hundreds of people being injured in Atteridgeville, west of Pretoria, on Thursday was an act of sabotage by striking train drivers.
More than 300 people were injured when a train ferrying passengers on the Atteridgeville line collided with the rear end of a stationary train.
Most of the injured passengers were taken to the nearby Kalafong Hospital. Others were treated at hospitals around the city. The driver was taken to Milpark Hospital in Joburg in a critical condition.
Metrorail said a cable theft incident that was reported shortly after midnight had resulted in the automated signal system turning off, forcing Metrorail to operate the trains manually.
Because of this, a train was authorised into a line occupied by a stationary train, leading to the collision.
Metrorail chief executive Mosenngwa Mofi said the rail operator had serious suspicions that the cable theft was an act of sabotage by those leading the train drivers’ strike. It is led by the new union, the National Transport Movement (NTM), which is seeking recognition from the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa).
Several trains around Gauteng have also been torched.
Metrorail has since laid charges of malicious damage to property for the torching of the trains against the union and its president Ephraim Mphahlele, who on Thursday refuted the claims and challenged Mofi to produce evidence that NTM was responsible for the cable theft which led to the accident.
“We have strong suspicions that this cable theft was linked to the current strike,” Mofi said.
“During such strikes there are usually acts of sabotage. We suspect it is the same in this incident.
“There have been four incidents of arson since this strike has started and only after we successfully interdicted them did the torching and the violence stop.”
Mphahlele refuted Metrorail’s claims, saying the union had nothing to do with the accident. The accident was most likely caused by a fatigued driver who was “overworked” by Metrorail, he said.
Transport authorities and emergency personnel hurried to the accident scene shortly after it occurred, with Netcare 911 alone sending 17 emergency vehicles. Transport Minister Ben Martins and Gauteng transport MEC Ismail Vadi also rushed to the scene.
The Kalafong Hospital, which is the closest to where the accident occurred, was overrun with patients and authorities started transferring them elsewhere.
Passenger Rose Ditlhake, who works at a retail store in Atteridgeville, was in the moving train.
“I was sitting in my seat when I heard a big bang. I fell down when the train crashed. I could not get up because there were people everywhere. Some people near the doors fell out of the train from the impact. It was horrible,” she said.
Themba Ncalo, a former Tshwane councillor and the secretary general of the Gauteng Civic Association, said the community was concerned about the growing number of train accidents.
“There is a deep sense of worry because every year there are more rail accidents,” he said.
He urged Metrorail to bring back proper security services to prevent cable theft. “If current security does not work, it must be done away with,” he said.
One of the passengers, who did not want to be named, boarded the train to Saulsville at 6.40am on his way to work. “Between Cordelfos station and Kalafong station, the train just stopped,” the man said.
“The train was stationary for about 45 minutes and then the other one hit it from the back. Everyone completely freaked out.”
Martins said there were precautionary measures against cable theft, but it remained a huge challenge to the efficient and safe operation of trains. “This is why the transport ministry wants the justice and security cluster to start considering it as an act of attempted homicide or murder because of these ramifications.
“We are also looking at a massive infrastructure overhaul because most of (it) is very old and needs to be refurbished to improve the safety of those using trains.”
The train service along the Atteridgeville route was severely disrupted by the accident. The Railway Safety Regulator and Metrorail are investigating the accident .