Metrorail has launched a festive season safety campaign, Operation Spider, to prepare for the spike in crime it usually sees at this time of year.
But crime isn’t waiting for Christmas to make its presence felt on the rails: it’s been a bad year for Metrorail, which has been hit by a crippling spike in vandalism, rail-related fatalities and attacks on its staff.
Four train coaches were torched on Thursday December 1 at Thornton station on the northern line, bringing the total number of train carriages torched to 69 since October last year.
“This is a national crisis that is escalating with every passing day. The coaches cost millions and belong to a state-owned enterprise funded with taxpayers’ money… The police have a constitutional obligation to act now,” said United National Transport Union (UNTU) general secretary, Steve Harris.
Metrorail spokeswoman Riana Scott said its available fleet in the Western Cape fluctuated between
69 and 72 train-sets to serve a timetable needing a minimum of 81.
On Saturday November 26, a female train driver was robbed by three men who held a knife to her throat, at the Bellville railway station, said UNTU in a statement.
Bellville police spokeswoman Warrant Officer Henrietta van Niekerk said the incident was not reported to the police.
Earlier on the morning of Saturday November 26, Metrorail had to shut down all train services in the region to permit urgent repair work on its trains after extensive vandalism in the early hours.
“It is time that all stakeholders, especially the government and the police, realised that to win the war against vandalism on our passenger trains in the Western Cape, we need to fight war with war,” said Mr Harris.
“Trains carry commuters to and from work. Commuters are tax-paying citizens. If they continue to arrive late at work due to the constant delayed trains, they will lose their jobs and become a liability of the state,” he said.
On Monday November 28, three men with knives jumped onto a full train travelling between Parow and Elsies River stations. They tried to get in through a side door and jumped off when they couldn’t.
Ms Scott condemned criminality against Metrorail staff and commuters. Trains were searched weekly for drugs, weapons and stolen property, she said. Arrests for petty crime on trains and at stations for the past weeks had averaged 14 a week.
Metrorail regional manager Richard Walker said Operation Spider would see random crackdowns on criminals and fare dodgers.
Access control would be beefed up and more security deployed to busy rail hubs like Mutual, Woltemade, Koeberg, Esplanade, Ysterplaat, Maitland, Pinelands, Bonteheuwel and Cape Town
“The operation has a dual strategy, ensuring legal compliance among commuters and driving criminals out of the system,” Mr Walker said.
Paying customers should not be inconvenienced by fare dodgers hogging space.
“Anyone on board a train without a valid ticket is illegal and will face fines, or arrest and prosecution risking a criminal record if found guilty,” he said.
Security personnel would be backed up by motorbike units.
Ms Scott urged communities to help by tipping the authorities off about crime and suspicious activity.
“Crime is on the increase in general and rail precincts are unfortunately not exempted from criminal attempts. Unless communities work with ourselves and the police on sustainable solutions, crime would simply shift from trains and stations to surrounding neighbourhoods,” she said.
Meanwhile, Metrorail passengers have taken to Facebook to voice their opinions on Operation Spider.
Karel Kallie said: “Why are these plans only for season time, why not the whole year? Focus on criminals not on people who don’t have tickets. They are hard on people without tickets and the criminals smile all the way because the focus is on people with no tickets.”
Jennifer Rutgers wrote: “Prasa must also try to put security guards at the ticket office, cause I travel from Netreg to Pinelands and there are always thugs hanging around, sometimes I’m too scared to take my money out to buy a ticket, since I’ve been robbed more than twice on the station, it’s really scary.”
Chante Baker said: “It’s unacceptable that us women should live in fear like this. I am yet to see this campaign begin? I caught the train this morning and there was absolutely no security. People checking tickets yes…but no security.”
Ms Scott said on Monday December 5 that services had been stabilised and were operating optimally under current conditions.
* Akhona Siduka, a Metrorail train guard, was shot by armed robbers just metres from the front door of her home on Wednesday November 30. UNTU said they were shocked at the senseless killing.