File Picture: David Ritchie/ANA Pictures
Durban - The decision by the Rail Safety Regulator (RSR) to suspend the use of “manual authorisation” could lead to further train crashes and cost the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) millions of rand.

Manual authorisation is used when railway robots have malfunctioned and train control officials have to manually instruct train drivers on whether they need to stop for another train to pass or if it’s all clear. The officials would also inform train drivers whether they needed to be re-routed.

Prasa spokesperson Dr Sipho Ngqulunga has claimed RSR is trying to force Prasa to “push” all passenger numbers on to the road-based public transport. Should this happen, about 2.6 million rail passengers in KwaZulu-Natal, Cape Town and Gauteng would be affected.

In KZN, 475 000 passengers (running 12-car train configurations) would be affected; 1.5 million in Gauteng and 650 000 in Cape Town.

Madelein Williams, general manager of media and communications at RSR, said the directive followed Prasa’s failure to curb train accidents, the latest happening in Geldenhuys railway station in Germiston on Tuesday. More than 200 passengers were injured when a train rear-ended a stationary locomotive.

RSR said the accident was caused by human error. It is understood the trains were being manually directed at the time because of a problem with signal cables.

Williams said RSR issued a prohibition directive in terms of their National Railway Safety Regulator Act for operating under conditions which are a threat or might be a threat to safe railway operations.

Accident

Referring to an accident in Junelast year when trains collided, killing one passenger and injuring several, Williams said RSR issued Prasa a prohibition directive to cease operating trains in the Gauteng region under abnormal working conditions.

“In response, Prasa undertook to ensure safe train operations during degraded conditions. However, the Geldenhuys station rear-end collision convinced us that Prasa does not have the means to prevent accidents when manual authorisations are undertaken,” she said.

She added that prohibition was in force nationally with immediate effect. The status quo would remain until normal train operations were restored or Prasa provided the RSR with a “comprehensive” and “convincing” action plan for all the provinces.

“Failure to comply with the directive will result in criminal charges and/or a penalty being imposed against Prasa,” she said.

Ngqulunga said road transport congestion was likely to increase because of this directive.

“The order will effectively push all those passengers on to road-based public transport. Traffic volumes will also increase, stretching the demand for road-based movement,” he said.

“The use of manual authorisation by Metrorail is not by design, but arises out of the ongoing attack on the rail infrastructure by thieves who continue to damage our signal infrastructure by stealing cables and signalling equipment.”

Ngqulunga said the scourge of cable theft and the continued support of that theft by clandestine industries continued to cost Prasa and the government millions of rand that could be used to upgrade passenger rail and create job opportunities.

Should the prohibition directive hold, he said, Metrorail could expect a huge backlash from the public that might see trains being set on fire or vandalised. “Millions of passengers who have bought tickets, which are the only tickets they can afford, will be severely affected while Metrorail will be unable to provide alternative transportation or refunds because of the sheer scale of the number of passengers. In a meeting we had with the regulator on Wednesday, we agreed to submit corrective measures to the RSR that will ensure passengers’ safety during degraded conditions where manual authorisation is in operation,” he said.

He said there were 9 000 manual authorisations countrywide, meaning that many robots were not functioning.

The SA Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (Satawu) in Durban was concerned about the directive because it would affect not only commuters, but also its members.

Prasa union representative Nokuthula Hazel Hlongwa said the agency had paid out more than R6million in bus fares for its employees after the destruction of rail infrastructure caused by the massive storm that hit KZN in October.

“The company had to stop this as it proved too costly. Over R6m was paid in one month and our members had to fend for themselves. This (directive) will cost us a lot because we get a 75% discount on train tickets and now people will have to spend more in the absence of trains,” Hlongwa said.

Daily News