According to Prasa group strategy officer Sipho Sithole, 12 coaches were destroyed: two motor coaches and 10 carriages. File photo: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)

Cape Town - A suspect has been arrested in connection with a fire during which two train sets were destroyed at Cape Town station.

According to police, the suspect from Khayelitsha was apprehended by Passenger Rail Agency of SA officials after he had been identified in surveillance footage.

"Investigations into the circumstances of a malicious damage to property case where several train carriages were extensively damaged during a fire at Cape Town railway station on Sunday afternoon led to the arrest of a suspect," said SAPS spokesperson, Andre Traut. 

"The 30-year-old resident of Khayelitsha was detained by police after he was apprehended by PRASA officials earlier on Monday. Surveillance footage was used to identify the suspect, who is scheduled to make a court appearance in Cape Town Magistrates’ Court once he has been charged. The possibility of more arrests is not ruled out."

The province’s passenger rail service, already on its last legs because of several arson attacks last year, suffered a major blow at the weekend when two train sets, comprising 12 coaches, were set alight.

The latest incident happened in spite of the rollout of the Rail Enforcement Unit, a joint effort between the City of Cape Town, provincial government and Metrorail to curb rail-related crime and damage to rail infrastructure. 

The incident at about 3.40pm on Sunday resulted in the torching of the two train sets on platforms 13 and 14 as high winds fanned the blaze from one set to the other in Cape Town station.

According to Prasa group strategy officer Sipho Sithole, 12 coaches were destroyed: two motor coaches and 10 carriages. Sithole put an estimated cost of R33 million on the rolling stock damage, and said about 300m of centenary and contact wires, critical to automate train control, was damaged.

No injuries were reported and the train service was restored by 7pm. Sithole said the police were on the scene and “a robust investigation is under way”.

He said initial indications pointed to arson. “The fires are a clear setback to Metrorail in its progressive improvement of its train-set availability and to decrease overcrowding.

“The Western Cape has increased its available train sets from 39 trains in December to 56, with a further increase to 60 sets by mid-April.”

Sithole said the province had recently received two new trains as part of the next phase of new train deployments along with a R9.1 billion capital funding allocation to fund rail infrastructure upgrades. He said the bulk of the funding, R3bn, would see the region phase in 35 new train sets.

Cape Town mayor Dan Plato said the incident was an indictment on those responsible for the management of the rail network and they must account to the public for the ongoing inaction to protect the public transport infrastructure.

Plato added he would be calling Western Cape police commissioner Khombinkosi Jula and the Prasa and Metrorail management teams to a meeting to provide him with an urgent update on the critical matter as the public needed to know that they would still have trains by the end of the year.

Plato said the City had previously offered to connect Prasa’s CCTV cameras to their Transport Management Centre and monitor the footage for Prasa. He said he would also be asking for an update on the matter.

“Cape Town Central station has been the target of at least seven, and possibly eight, separate arson incidents since July 2018.”

Transport and Public Works MEC Donald Grant said the CCTV footage from the station showed that the incident may have been deliberate.

He said the video showed two individuals acting suspiciously at the scene, and when approached by law enforcement, they fled. He hoped that the footage would assist in tracking down the pair.

The ANC condemned the setting on fire of two trains as sabotage. Its Western Cape secretary Faiez Jacobs said: “These trains belong to the nation… Setting them on fire is a crime against the people.”

United National Transport Union spokesperson Sonja Carstens said whoever was behind the incident was challenging the government.

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Cape Argus