Hijacking of train drivers, cable theft and vandalism are derailing the services of the cash-strapped Passenger Railway Agency of South Africa (Prasa), according to the United National Transport Union (Untu).
Highlighting the chaotic state of rail transport services and the implications for the country, union spokesperson Sonja Carstens said the agency forked out millions of rand every year to repair the resultant damage and losses.
The more than 1.7 million passengers countrywide who rely on trains for their weekly commutes were bearing the brunt of the gaps in service, Carstens added.
Although train-related crime was rife in the Western Cape, particularly at the notorious Chris Hani Station, there have been similar incidents in other provinces, including KwaZulu-Natal.
Recently, an armed security guard was shot dead while on duty in the Western Cape. He was the fifth worker to be killed on duty over the past 18 months, according to Carstens.
When Independent Media visited the Durban railway station this week, afternoon commuters crammed into coaches was a common sight.
In some instances, the automated train doors could not close, because of the overcrowding.
And safety officers were nowhere to be seen on the platforms.
“This is our life. We are used to it now,” said Zinhle Zulu, a regular train commuter from KwaMashu.
“There are times when we are robbed inside the train because it’s too full.
“You must always be mindful of the people behind you because amaPhara (vagrants) also ride on the trains to rob us,” she explained.
Zulu said she had to use the train as it was the only mode of transport she could afford.
Another commuter, Sizwe Cele, asked whether Prasa officials were aware of what passengers endured daily at train stations.
“For the past 20 years, I’ve been using the train, but it does not get any better,” Cele said.
One former assistant train driver, Mndeni Ngwenya, said the drivers’ lives were at risk because they were not afforded any protection while on duty.
“At times you are required to walk long distances, without any security officials in sight, to switch trains,” said Ngwenya.
He added: “Although I was not hijacked in my five-year tenure, I have seen other drivers being hijacked on trains.”
Police officers and commuters have been brutally attacked and robbed on many occasions, Carstens confirmed.
The union (Untu) held a stakeholder meeting recently to discuss the problems passengers were facing.
Hijacking was a major problem because it endangered the lives of hundreds of commuters, she said.
“Vandalism and cable theft are costing the agency millions of rand, which eventually costs taxpayers.
“We visited some stations that had been severely vandalised and in one case a signal had been stolen.”
Trains were the cheapest mode of transport and were mostly used by the poor, but the government was ignoring the plight of train passengers, she accused.
“Prasa is sufficiently funded by government, but corruption has crippled the agency,” she alleged.
Prasa spokesperson Nana Zenani said the vandalism was not only Prasa’s problem.
Stopping it required the united efforts of various stakeholders, she contended.
“Municipalities, the police and all law enforcement agencies must work together to ensure these criminals are convicted,” she said.