Metrorail’s woes continue as train strike looms

Some of the burned carriages at the staging yard in Kraaifontein.

Delays choked the northern line this week after fire engulfed three trains at a Kraaifontein rail yard at the weekend.

The fire, on Saturday night April 15, damaged 11 coaches, completely destroying eight of them. It took three hours to extinguish.

Metrorail said it was “too early to speculate” on the cause of the fire, but police are investigating, and damage could run into tens of millions of rands.

There was little doubt in the minds of angry commuters that the fire was the work of arsonists, as it mirrored the spate of train torchings that has plagued Metrorail for more than a year.

Adding to Metrorail’s and commuters’ woes, are threats of a looming strike by rail unions, after another round of failed wage talks. And this hot on the heels of a nationwide bus strike.

United National Transport Union (UNTU) spokeswoman Sonja Carstens said they had declared a dispute in March after halving their demand for a 20% increase.

The union had met with Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) bosses at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) on Tuesday April 11 where it had been granted a certificate of non-resolution.

The outcome of a strike ballot should be known by Friday April 21, Ms Carstens said.

Just last week, Golden Arrow drivers joined a nationwide bus strike after wage talks deadlocked, leaving about 220 000 of the bus company’s passengers stranded.

The strike was called off after a wage agreement was reached.

Metrorail issued a warning at the weekend to train commuters that Saturday’s fire would cause more delays on the already embattled service.

Irate commuters took to social media to vent their frustration. Wilfred Brown asked: “Where were your CCTV monitors and operators? How is it possible that such sh** can happen in a yard which has private security companies?”

Jaqueline Brand also questioned Metrorail’s security. “I also do not understand why the trains are not secured at night. Metrorail knows people target the trains. Surely security is cheaper than the millions they will need to spend now?”

Bonita Afrika said: “Cancellations and overcrowding are nothing new to our northern line commuters. We are used to it, seven days a week.”

Four trains were burnt on December 1 last year at Thornton station on the northern line, bringing the number of carriages torched at the time to 69 since October 2015.

Three carriages were also destroyed on the northern line in September, after angry commuters torched a train travelling between Bellville and Tygerberg station.

The vandalism has seen many trains cancelled leading to even more dire overcrowding. In March, a man fell from an overfull carriage at Kuils River station (“Man falls from train,” Northern News, March 22).

In a statement last year, Untu blamed Prasa for the arson attacks saying they were a symptom of its “continued failure to increase safety on railway stations and trains, the constant delays of trains and the general lack of service delivery”.

At the time, Steve Harris, the union’s general secretary said: “It is no use for the management of Prasa just to continue pulling up its shoulders and saying that the burning of coaches puts a lot of pressure on the railway service to provide commuters with a reliable service. The lack of reliable services from Prasa is the reason why commuters continue to take the law into their own hands.”

Reacting to the latest incident, Metrorail’s regional manager Richard Walker said the arson was derailing attempts to improve the service.

“It is unfortunate that the worst affected will be our commuters coming from the poorer communities on the northern line corridor who can only afford the Metrorail train service as a means of public transport and mobility,” he said.

Provincial police spokesman Captain FC van Wyk said a case of malicious damage to property was being investigated and he appealed to anyone with information to come forward.

* Additional reporting Lizahn Wentzel