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Durban - Angry commuters who petrol bombed two trains on Thursday in uMlazi, “because they were late”, caused damage estimated at R40 million.
Rail authorities want to charge uMlazi commuters, with economic sabotage and attempted murder.
“We are determined to throw the book at those found guilty of this crime...,” said Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) chief executive, Mosenngwa Mofi, who condemned the violence.
Four suspects aged between 20 and 35 years were arrested for public violence police said. They were expected to appear in the uMlazi Magistrate’s Court on Friday.
Mofi said they would also lobby prosecuting authorities to charge the commuters with wilful destruction of public property.
Metrorail said it could take months before the trains – one Durban bound; the other uMlazi-bound – were back in operation.
Spokeswoman, Thandi Mkhize, blamed cable theft at the KwaMashu-Duffs Road train station for the two trains being delayed for 30 minutes on Thursday morning.
People fiddling with the railway line in uMlazi had also contributed to the delay, she said.
“Commuters who could not contain their anger then took out their frustrations by setting the trains alight.”
The two motor coaches on each train had been torched, Mkhize said. Each coach would cost about R10m to replace – a repair bill of R40m.
“The problem is that a train cannot move anywhere without its motor coaches,” she said. “We will now also have a problem of train availability with these two trains out of action, and it will take months before they are back at work.” Daily they transport 160 000 people using 52 train sets across the province. Each set has 12 coaches.
“Following this incident we will be running short sets, which will only have eight coaches, until the two trains have been repaired,” she said. Mkhize said they only used buses if they could not run a train at all happened on Thursday.
Metrorail has made plans to bus the affected commuters.
Provincial police spokesman, Colonel Vincent Mdunge, said that police would be on standby to monitor the situation on Friday.
Daily News reporter, Sihle Mhlongo, who lives near the uMlazi train station, said he heard a commotion at around 8am.
“Commuters were angry that the train was late. It usually comes around five and people were very angry,” he said. “They had then thrown two petrol bombs at the trains and set them alight. After that it was chaotic. Police came to try to control the crowd.”
Mhlongo said the angry commuters had even tried to stone the buses that had been provided for them.
“They blockaded the road for about an hour, but then police managed to control the crowd,” he said.
Metrorail spokesman, Lawrence Venkile, said there was a strong link between this incident, and the train crash on Thursday near Pretoria in which 200 people were injured, and the strike by the National Transport Movement (NTM).
“We are convinced it is no coincidence that these incidents occur in the middle of the strike,” said Venkile.
The incident was the fifth to take place since the beginning of the strike. Copper cable theft was believed to be the “root cause” of the Pretoria incident according to a preliminary finding. When cables are stolen, the rail system’s technology changes from automatic to manual. As a result of the theft, the automated signalling was off.
Prasa laid a charge against the leadership of the NTM on Saturday. The following day, a Labour Court judge restricted its activities.
Venkile said the strike had failed to garner support as only around 500 of the 13 600 employees of Prasa had been on strike.
“We have reliable information that the intention of the strikers, was to sabotage the rail operations set up to support the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), as well as to engage in activities that would undermine the effective running of the commuter services.”
– Additional reporting by Sapa