File photo: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)
At least R210 million has gone down the drain due to arson attacks that destroyed 146 train carriages in Cape Town in the past five years.

Metrorail Western Cape spokesperson Riana Scott put the value of a fire-damaged carriage at between R1.5m and R6m. Prosecutors have failed to secure a single prosecution in the courts.

Moreover, there is only one case of train-related damage that is before the courts.

Two trains were set alight in the past seven days and the combined damage will cost R51m.

The United National Transport Union (Untu) said the same method was used for all arson attacks.

The trend of setting trains alight was unheard of five years ago, according to Scott.

The Passenger Rail Agency of SA’s (Prasa) new chief executive, Sibusiso Sithole, has responded by roping in Metrorail regional manager Richard Walker, Prasa Rail chief executive Martha Ngoye and an unnamed head of security.

“A meeting was held on Tuesday and a comprehensive report of events as well as a stabilisation programme were submitted to (Sithole) for consideration,” Scott told the Weekend Argus.

She did not respond to a question about the timelines.

Even after the recent suspected arson incidents, it appears that train passengers’ frustrations are set to continue as new trains are unlikely to be added any time soon.

“Prasa was considering moving the deployment of new trains to a closer date in the Western Cape; however, as a result of the ongoing attacks on our trains, the plan will now focus on a long-term deployment timeline,” Scott said.

Asked about whether there had been any prosecutions from the 11 arson cases, she said: “We have not had a conviction, unfortunately none, but we are hopeful that with the recent addition of forensic capabilities, we can secure a conviction as we have with cable thieves.

“There has been, unfortunately, one (death) with a total of 11 trains that have been lost so far. An analysis of the train fires since October 2015 has indicated a trend of events happening off-peak and when trains are empty.”

Commuters regularly experience frustration on stations as trains don’t arrive or are constantly late.

“The deployment of the new trains also depends on progress with regards to supporting technologies being in place such as the new signalling system (in progress), platform re-alignment at certain stations and a suitable depot as a holding area, and for maintenance and staff training in new technologies.

“The biggest challenge remains the possible impact of vandalism and service delivery protests that habitually target rail infrastructure by typically setting alight tyres or placing objects on the rail tracks.

“All incidents of this nature are costly, not only to Prasa but to commuters who have to make do with a reduced service. The cost of the current arson is R30m. Although the exact amounts would have to confirmed by Prasa’s loss adjusters, historically similarly gutted carriages varied between R1.5m and R6m per carriage depending on the extent of the damage, whether it is a motor coach or a passenger carriage, condition of the asset, etc.”

She said the region was operating at half capacity as a result of loss to fire, obsolescence, age-related failures and vandalism.

She said the northern line was the worst hit but all lines were affected.

The general secretary of Untu, Steve Harris, said: “At this moment, Metrorail is left with just 40 train sets of the 88 train sets needed to run a proper service.

“This means that overcrowding of trains and the delays of the service become worse with every passing minute. To date there have been six incidents where train coaches belonging to Prasa in the province has been torched with a substance while it was approaching stations.”

Transport Minister Blade Nzimande conducted a brief inspection of the damaged train. He said: “Prasa spends a lot of money on security, but it looks to me like we’re not getting value for money.”

He said they needed to look at short- to medium-term solution. “We are aware that we’re running with shorter trains. This wastage is really setting us back, in a big way.”