Blue Train passengers were left stranded for hours in the Karoo on Wednesday night when the train’s engine caught fire, and there was not enough firefighting equipment on board to douse it.
According to passengers, there was chaos on the train.
They said staff were clearly not trained to handle emergencies, there were few fire extinguishers, no sprinklers and no fire alarm on board.
The train was travelling between Cape Town and Pretoria when the fire broke out at about 6pm, said passenger Nick Rea.
He said the handling of the emergency was shocking, especially considering the high costs of the tickets.
According to the rates on the Blue Train website, a ticket in high season costs between R15 000 and R21 000 a person between Cape Town and Pretoria.
The fire broke out just south of Beaufort West, where it had stopped. The driver uncoupled the coaches from the locomotive to stop the fire from spreading further.
“We could smell it and it was only after some time that someone made an announcement. The staff was very disorganised,” Rea said.
Passengers were asked to disembark, but Rea said there were no ladders, and the mainly elderly and foreign passengers struggled to get down.
Rea also had to help a disabled woman get off the train, he said.
“Most of the passengers are on average in their elderly years and getting off the train was quite difficult for them,” Rea said.
Rea said nobody took a roster and he went back into the train to knock on closed cabin doors and tell people who did not know that there was a fire, that they must disembark.
In the morning, another train came and picked them up and took them to Matjesfontein, where they were taken to Cape Town airport and met by Blue Train management.
Rea said the lack of emergency training meant a real tragedy could have taken place.
“Thank goodness the fire didn’t spread because the wind was blowing the fire to the side and not back towards the coaches…
“A train like this should have proper fire extinguishers, a sprinkler system and a fire alarm,” Rea said.
Transnet freight rail spokesman Michael Asefovitz said the train had two locomotives and 17 coaches, with 53 passengers on board.
He said the driver had noticed the smoke and immediately separated the coaches from the locomotive.
“He only had a fire extinguisher with him, but I understand emergency workers were there quite quickly. They used 25 000 litres of water to put the fire out and everyone thought it was under control, but it started up again and the locomotive burnt out completely,” Asefovitz said.
He said it was unfortunate that passengers had to stay outside for four hours, but emergency workers needed to make sure the coaches were safe before they were allowed back on board.
He said passengers’ transfer costs were all covered by the company and they were offered either the chance of a 100 percent refund or they would be allowed to postpone their trip to another date.