Angry commuters cause R30m damage to station

Damage to the Pretoria station, which was set alight by commuters angered by train delays on Monday night, was provisionally estimated at R30-million, a third of its insured value, its owner the SA Rail Commuter Corporation (SARCC) said on Tuesday.

Earlier Metrorail estimated the damage to be R50-million.

SARCC acting managing director Ben van der Ross told the Pretoria Press Club that the fire added to the losses incurred in recent past, which included trains being burnt out and damage to coaches and stations during the security guard strike.

This, he said, caused serious insurance problems for the SARCC.

"These incidents make our insurers, Lloyds of London, very, very nervous about insuring us."

The public would have to bear the brunt for this, he said.

"The public must realise these major installations cannot be taken for granted."

The state did not have the money to keep on replacing them, he said, adding that the building, designed by Sir Herbert Baker in 1910, was "absolutely irreplaceable.

"Through the grace of God it was not destroyed."

According to preliminary investigations, the main structure could be saved. However, a 48-hour time lapse was necessary to allow the temperature to settle before a proper estimate could be done, van der Ross said.

Due to the age of the station certain finishes could not be restored even if the building could be saved.

"There is going to be a permanent loss to the public," he said.

Commuters who were unhappy about technical with train delays set parts of the station foyer alight on Monday night. The fire spread to the roof, which later caved in.

Earlier on Tuesday, Violy Viljoen, owner of the Station Pub and Grill, who saw four or five people setting the station alight, said she saw no security guards at the scene and was forced to search for them. She also said the fire brigade only arrived about half an hour after she phoned.

However, assistant fire chief Gordon Kuhn said firemen arrived at the scene four minutes after being alerted at 7.27pm. About 100 or 200 people phoned in to report the blaze, Kuhn said.

He added that the fact that the building was so old and had concrete ceilings hampered efforts to quell the blaze because they could not be ripped out to prevent the fire from spreading.

In a statement read on his behalf by Gauteng transport MEC Khabisi Mosunkutu, Transport Minister Dullah Omar described the incident as regrettable and unforgivable and as a blow to infrastructure development.

President Thabo Mbeki had recently promised large government investment in infrastructure development and maintenance in his state-of-the-nation speech, Omar said.

Director Sally de Beer, spokesperson for national police commissioner Jackie Selebi, described the act of arson as criminal and malicious.

She called on the public to come forward with information concerning the culprits.

Metrorail chief executive Honey Mateya said: "This kind of behaviour is not acceptable... It is not good for our image."

Before the fire started, there was a signal failure throughout Pretoria, Mateya said. Compounding the situation was the fact that the communication system was out of order which prevented officials from announcing the problem.

"It was almost operationally hopeless."

The system was designed to, when it failed, fall back on the safest way to operate trains, Metrorail regional manager Chris Kilowan said.

When the signal system failed, trains are required to obtain manual authorisation, which could take up to 20 minutes per train. About 120 trains could be running in the Tshwane area at one time.

"It is a complicated system. There are times when things do go wrong."

When the fire started, the optic fibre cables at the station were also damaged and the electricity was switched off, Kilowan said.

He said there had been previous incidents of vandalism when there were problems with trains, but only a few commuters were involved.

"There is unfortunately an element which seizes an opportunity like this."

According to Kilowan, there were six guards and four access controllers on duty at the station while another four guards arrived on an express train from Johannesburg. About 50 guards in all were eventually drafted in from other stations.

Metrorail will run a scaled-down service, of about 70 percent the normal capacity, from Wednesday morning.

The company said Bosman station, near the Pretoria station, would be used in the interim.

Commuters would be able to travel to Johannesburg and other stations in Mamelodi and Saulsville from Bosman.

Kilowan said one or two trains might be taken out of service, because Bosman Station had only four platforms, half of what Pretoria station had available. The latter would be closed down for a considerable time.

Buses had been arranged to transport commuters and the arrangements would be announced at stations.

Tshwane metro had been working with Metrorail to devise alternative transport, said Lolo Ditshego, member of the mayoral committee for transport.

The metro was in discussions with taxi associations, including those in Tembisa. An initial assessment indicated that the train problems did not affect the capital's economy too severely.

"It looks as if almost 95 percent of the activities in town are intact," Ditshego said.

Mainline Passenger Services, which transports people over longer distances also made alternative arrangements, spokesperson Vusi Ngcube said.

Metrorail commuters with queries may call 012-315-2007/8 while commuters travelling with the Mainline Passenger Services' may phone 086-000-8888.

- Sapa

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