The pillaging and destruction of the country's rail infrastructure is so extensive that there is little hope of full recovery, with the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) conceding to the gravity of the situation that has halted trains. The rail infrastructure has been under consistent attack, stripped of copper cables, railway lines, signalling equipment and overhead electricity cables and the pillaging was brazen and escalated during the lockdown. "During lockdown we had a situation where criminals took their time to take what they want. In some cases it was clear that large earth moving equipment was used to...
The pillaging and destruction of the country's rail infrastructure is so extensive that there is little hope of full recovery, with the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) conceding to the gravity of the situation that has halted trains.
The rail infrastructure has been under consistent attack, stripped of copper cables, railway lines, signalling equipment and overhead electricity cables and the pillaging was brazen and escalated during the lockdown.
"During lockdown we had a situation where criminals took their time to take what they want. In some cases it was clear that large earth moving equipment was used to dig out cables from the ground. It was systemic, brazen and these people knew what they wanted and where to find it," a security manager at Prasa said.
The manager, part of a Prasa team that visited various stations recently, said the extent of the damage was horrifying.
The official said Cape Town's Central line, the busiest line serving the poor townships such as Bonteheuwel, Khayelitsha, Nyanga and Mitchells Plain, has been stripped of everything, with overhead cables, ground copper cables and other equipment ripped off.
"Offices in stations were broken into, expensive equipment smashed, and furniture broken down. The last time the line was operational was in October last year and plans were to open it after lockdown but the damage is so extensive that it is hopeless," the senior official said.
No faith in Fikile
Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula is expected to make an announcement on the plan for the repair, security of the rail infrastructure, and recovery of train services next week but unions are cynical as previous interventions have failed.
The United National Transport Union (Untu) is adamant that there is no hope for Prasa as there is no political will to rescue the agency, with bold plans but no action.
"(Mbalula) constantly makes announcements about plans but there is no implementation. First, Prasa has no money and there is nothing you can implement without money. Secondly there is just no interest in protecting the rail assets," Sonja Carstens, Untu deputy general-secretary, said.
She said the mandate of the Rapid Rail National Response Team established within the SA Police Service was to safeguard the rail infrastructure, visible policing and crime prevention but said they were nowhere to be seen.
"You only find them in Pretoria and Johannesburg station, sitting in the offices. Why are they not visible, doing crime prevention and guarding the infrastructure as per their mandate?" Carstens asked.
She said the attacks were well-planned and executed, possibly with inside information because it could not be that people take days digging out cables and no one sees.
"That is how systematic this has been," Carstens said.
Damage would take years to repair
Lubabalo Tinzi, Passenger Rail Coordinator for the SA Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu), said even if the destroyed infrastructure was to be repaired, it would take years, and might never regain its previous status.
He said the extent of vandalism and pillaging of the rail infrastructure during lockdown was unprecedented, saying their members in the security services were sending pictures of the damage to stations.
"Prasa is on its knees. Nothing is left to salvage and the destruction was such that now offices are targeted, with steel cabinets damaged and files destroyed especially during lockdown," Tinzi said.
He said there was nothing that Mbalula could say that will save Prasa, saying the pillaging continued with impunity despite the so-called war room that Mbalula said would rescue Prasa.
"Only four local lines are operational across the country. The biggest, busiest lines like Pretoria and Johannesburg, which are supposed to be Prasa's cash cows, are not operational. What has the war room achieved? They must stop playing with our feelings," Tinzi said.
Prasa has conceded that the destruction of its rail infrastructure was extensive but said the situation was not as bad as it was made out to be.
Gauteng was the worst affected, the agency's spokesperson, Makhosini Mgitywa, said on Thursday, but said in lines where overhead electricity cables were missing, they were rolling out diesel locomotives.
He said the diesel locomotives have enabled Prasa to open the line between Park Station and Naledi, saying this demonstrated that the situation was not as bad.
"Bad as it is and I must concede the situation is bad… Infrastructure has been vandalised but in situations where we can use diesel locomotives even though overhead traction cable are missing, but where the rail infrastructure is still sound we use diesel locomotives and we are rolling out the service in many other lines…" Mgitywa said.
He told the SABC that they still needed to assess the extent of the damage in the affected stations negatively but assured the public that the worst had passed as they had employed 3,100 security officers.
Mgitywa said they were optimistic that insourcing security services to look after the infrastructure would help the agency turn the situation around, saying the agency suffered over R1 billion worth of damage for three years up to 2019 though they were paying private security companies.
"The contracts were not designed to protect Prasa or to protect the infrastructure of Prasa. They were designed to benefit those security companies and people working with them inside Prasa. That situation is being corrected and we are optimistic…" he said.
According to Mgitywa, their infrastructure was porous and vulnerable, pleading with communities to look after the infrastructure as their own because damage to the infrastructure affected mostly the poor people, low income earners and Job seekers using the train to hunt for jobs. He said the minister will detail a plan on the plan to secure the agency's assets and would also outline the plan for the recovery of train services.
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