Soweto rail crash just tip of the iceberg

The Railway Safety Regulator’s report in the Mail & Guardian‘s possession shows that there were 5 307 train accidents in South Africa between 2008 and 2009.

Last week a Metrorail train accident in Meadowlands, Soweto, left 857 passengers injured. It followed a similar accident in Tshwane a few weeks ago.

A comparison of figures from two safety regulator’ documents, in the M&G‘s possession, shows there were 1 002 accidents due to collisions in 2008, climbing to 1 200 in 2009.

Collisions account for the highest number of all train accidents. The accidents in 2008-2009 left 1 932 people injured and 434 dead.

The other accidents were due to derailments, fires and people struck by moving trains.

Train driver responsible for last week’s accident has been fired, but 19 other drivers are facing disciplinary hearings for offences ranging from speeding to passing signals at danger (rail terminology for passing stop signs without authority).

The Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa has allocated R20-million to compensate victims of the Soweto and Tshwane accidents.

“One of the main problems is the theft of infrastructure,” said Chris Janisch, chairperson of the Heritage Railway Association of South Africa.

“Sleeper and rail theft causes regular derailment. Signal failures occur due to theft of signalling cables and these faults can lead to accidents. Much of the Transnet Freight Rail infrastructure is aged and is in need of replacement.”

He said many branch lines were not maintained properly since they experienced little traffic and would probably be closed or concessioned.

“Then there is the human-error factor. Signals and speed restrictions are not always obeyed properly. This is a constant problem for Transnet, which is attempting to deal with such irresponsible drivers,” said Janisch.

Southern African rail analyst John Batwell said staff today were catapulted into positions “that took years to rise to in the past, based on examinable merit and experience”.

This, “compounded by the vandalism of railway property and insufficiently upgraded infrastructure”, contributed to the terrible situation of rail accidents and transport today.

A set of minimum safety standards has been drawn up by the safety regulator in Johannesburg. Its content developer, Godwill Maletle, said: “This is the first of its kind in the country. It relates to driver competency, fatigue, working shifts and training.”

Collisions and derailments comprise 90% of Transnet Freight Regulator occurrence costs, according to the safety report. “[This] has a direct effect on the efficient operation of the freight-rail system.”

The latest state-of-safety report will be tabled in Parliament in September, according to Lavinia Engelbrecht of the Railway Safety regulator.

The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, supported by M&G Media and the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, produced this story. All views are the centre’s.


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