Train accident Picture:Paballo Thekiso

Last week’s train collision shows that public rail transport is clearly not a priority for government, writes Janet Smith.

Tall men have to dip their heads in the shacks pressed up along the tracks next to the Booysens station. People wash there, cook there, make love there, raise children there – right up against the steel wheels and the creaking sleepers which express so much of the city’s political passage.

The station is a miserable place. To get there, you have to pass through the empty steampunk of Selby, then take a sharp left away from the bad spelling and industry, into a road cut through the mine dumps.

It’s an avenue of pylons standing astride the disappointment below – legs planted in man-sized weeds matted with trash. Arms of cables loom in queues, the tailings about as close as the shacks, their sticky yellow sides the colour of nausea.

There are warnings at the entrance of the station that no rifles, handguns, axes or knives are allowed beyond the gates. But even if commuters don’t entirely expect to be protected from violence on this key Soweto-CBD route, they surely expect not to smash into another train, or roll off the tracks, or drop down the sidings.

Yet that’s what happened on Friday night, when at least 250 people were injured in a derailment between Booysens and the next station at Crown Mines. Two trains collided, leaving dozens laid out in that dirt and toxic hum waiting to get medical treatment.

The red and blue lights of the cop cars and fire engines flickered a miasma of special effects on the fearful choir of sobbing and shouts. Night slipped like a sail over the open-air stage.

This is the opposite end to the life of the glossy Gautrain, where a narrative would course for hours and, possibly, days if a derailment and scores of injuries happened. As the city’s flush openly court Joburg’s attempts at being Geneva with a fastidious, super-clean train schedule, the working class are still at the mercy of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa).

The mass casualties of Friday night easily symbolise what is happening at the state-owned enterprise responsible for most passenger rail services in the country. It’s not only that its leadership seems fatally flawed, with chief executive Lucky Montana booted out six months early during his notice period, and the man we thought was the chief engineer allegedly merely a technologist.

It’s not only that something other than stupidity has to lie behind the extravagant purchase of Spanish trains that are apparently too high for some of our railway bridges. It’s not only that we might automatically assume tender regulations must have been flouted – such is the political soundtrack.

It is, rather, the suspicion that public passenger rail, like public health and public education, is not a priority of the government. After all, as one letter writer wrote this week, black lives are still cheap. What else would account for the litany of troubles attached to Prasa? What else would allow a government entity to have such a high incident record. Fecklessness? Vanity?

There were about the same number of injured on Friday as in Denver in April when an express train ran into the back of a Metro train. One person was killed and at least 200 were hurt. In 2011, a Metrorail Soweto smash left 857 commuters injured, and there have been several other such events in recent years: crashes punctuated with arson by violent and fed-up commuters.

Accident-claim lawyers rub their hands together, surveying the pictures on TV. Past medical expenses, future medical and hospital expenses, past and future loss of earnings and general damages. Ka-ching.

The question is obvious, but are signal systems regularly refurbished? Is the functioning of our railway systems under Prasa properly audited – ever? You wouldn’t know if you looked at Prasa’s website. It, too, is under construction.

A media lock-up is in place for the public protector’s release of her report into allegations of maladministration at Prasa on Thursday. Its 550 pages might shed some light.

The Star