A burnt-out Metrorail train is seen in Salt River depot. It was set alight by protesters at Khayelitsha station. Picture: Tracey Adams

Cape Town - The exasperated head of the country’s railway service has warned that Cape Town’s central train lines could be closed if rampant vandalism continues.

This came after a group of protesters set a train alight at Chris Hani station on Wednesday night, as the empty train prepared to return to Cape Town.

“Shortly afterwards attempts were made to torch Kuyasa station a few kilometres further,” Metrorail reported.

“Four carriages, one a motor coach, were destroyed. Overhead electrical equipment as well as mast poles suffered damage. The train driver and guard had to flee to escape injury. A conservative costing of the latest damage is R8 million, excluding the damage to the station and the overhead electrical equipment.”

The attacks also left thousands of commuters stranded.

On Thursday, Prasa Rail CEO Mosenngwa Mofi arrived in Cape Town to personally assess the damage.

The outraged parastatal leader said: “It is totally unacceptable that 20 years into our democracy, frustration with service delivery is expressed through violence and wanton destruction of property.”

Mofi said the latest incident brought the total number of carriages lost, damaged by fire and arson in the 2013-2014 financial year to 31 in the Western Cape alone. “(D)epending on the extent of repairs and refurbishing required, it takes six to 12 months for carriages to be returned to service,” Metrorail warned.

Mofi said theft and vandalism had cost his organisation R382m nationally over the past three years. This total included both direct replacement costs and indirect costs such as provision of alternative transportation and increased insurance premiums. In the Western Cape, the fire damage last year was 17 carriages, and 14 so far this year already.

Mofi said vandalism and misdirected anger at service levels “negate efforts to improve services and leads to wasteful expenditure as repeated acts of wanton destruction eats away at precious financial resources”.

“It is unfortunate that these assets under attack reduce our ability to offer commuters a proper service.

“The continued lawlessness may force our hand to close the central lines in the Western Cape until protesters desist from destroying state assets and communities expose these criminals,” Mofi warned. “How can we risk bringing new trains and infrastructure when the current service is not safe?”

At the epicentre of these “central lines” under threat, due to vandalism, were the key services between Nyanga and Khayelitsha, and Nyanga and Mitchells Plain. Mofi said the railway service was acknowledged as the backbone of public transport, and that “close to 60 percent of public transport users rely on trains for mobility”.

The City of Cape Town also condemned the attack - as well as the stoning of a MyCiTi bus.

“The bus was stoned in Lindela Road near the Kuyasa station at around 6pm. Fortunately no passengers were injured, but the bus had to be withdrawn from service due to a smashed window. The city’s law enforcement officials assisted and the MyCiTi N2 Express service continued via a route deviation. The ticket office in Kuyasa, where Transport for Cape Town has been issuing free myconnect cards to passengers, was also damaged,” the city reported.

Brett Herron, mayco member for transport, said: “The trend of destruction of public infrastructure and the sabotage of transport services by a relatively small group of people, who are pursuing their own private interests at the expense of any other person, is shocking and sickening.

“This unfettered conduct is a setback for us all, but it is particularly unfair to some of the most economically vulnerable among us.

“Tragically, following last night’s incident, it is the residents of Khayelitsha who are suffering the most.”

Herron said the damage to the MyCiTi bus and the city’s infrastructure had to be paid for with public funds which could have been used for further service delivery improvements on the Cape Flats – a point reiterated by Mofi regarding the railway service.

Mofi said: “We cannot allow lawlessness to continue – business and customer experience must improve. However we are unable to do so as we spend our time replacing vandalised assets instead of improving our service.”

Cape Argus