Deadly derailment: The true cost of train track vandalism
Transport unions and economists warn that train vandals are hurting the poor the most
Beyond the death and crippling injuries millions of SA train commuters face owing to the daily dangers of vandalism to the country’s railway network, there is a far more widespread threat – to the economy.
Tuesday’s train crash outside Pretoria, which left three people dead and more than 600 injured, is said to have cost the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) R21m.
The cause is believed to be theft of signalling cables, which led to a train ploughing into the back of another which had stopped at the Mountain View station.
Transport minister Blade Nzimande, speaking at the crash site on Tuesday, demanded to know why so much money was being spent on security “yet we continue having cable theft”.
“We have got state-owned companies being looted ... and these are the products of it. People are suffering. It's ordinary working-class people who are being killed.
“No security company must get a tender from Prasa if it is not able to demonstrate what it has done in order to deal with this [cable theft]. Otherwise, we turn Prasa into an ATM. And it’s not just an ATM, it’s people’s lives,” he said.
According to Western Cape transport MEC Donald Grant, nearly R650m in damage has been caused to the province’s railway transport system through vandalism since October 2015.
The United National Transport Union (UNTU) estimates the costs to be almost double that.
According to UNTU, of the 88 train sets the province is meant to have, only 38 are operational. The remainder have been destroyed because of vandals, who torched the carriages.
A set has three engines and a minimum of eight carriages.
Prasa, according to its latest financial report, needs nearly 260 train sets to transport SA’s rail commuters. It only has 174 with more than 1,500 Metrorail coaches vandalised during the last three financial years.
Vandalism, which according to Prasa’s annual report is growing rapidly, is one of the leading causes of failure of the state-owned company’s train system. Transport unions and provincial government transport authorities say vandalism poses a direct threat to the economy.
While Prasa spokesperson Lillian Mofokeng failed to respond to questions on the cost of vandalism, the agency’s annual report states: “The theft and vandalism of cables and components aggravated the challenges of maintenance resulting in increased numbers of rolling stock unavailability and unreliability. This negatively affected delivery of a safe, clean and secure train service.”
UNTU general secretary Steve Harris said the economic impact on the country from accidents and vandalism is huge.
“To refurbish a carriage which has been vandalised or damaged in an accident costs an estimated R7m – and that’s just the direct financial cost. That doesn’t take into account the overload strain put onto the railway system from a carriage being out of service because of the four months it takes to repair.”
He said that in the Western Cape 50 train sets are out of action because of vandalism.
“On average, four carriages per set were torched during each vandalism incident. That’s nearly R1.4bn worth of assets destroyed. That doesn’t include the vandalism done to the train stations and signalling and track infrastructure, and this is just for the Western Cape.
“In KwaZulu-Natal, which is another vandalism hot spot, 10 carriages were destroyed in October last year when they were set alight. The cost to refurbish them would be R70m. On the south coast last year a train station and several carriages were destroyed, resulting in R100m worth of damage. In Gauteng last year, R42m worth of carriages were destroyed through vandalism.”
He said the impact of the destruction was that commuters were jamming themselves onto trains.
“Commuters demand to know why new carriages cannot be added onto the trains, but the new stock is not compatible with old carriages. The economic impact from vandalism on commuters, the majority of which use the trains because they are cheap, is massive. Other public transport costs are almost triple that of train fares. Commuters force themselves onto trains and into dangerous situations to ensure they get to work on time.
“If they don’t they risk losing their jobs. Vandalism indirectly impacts on the country’s productivity, with small businesses at risk of closing.”
He said the government had to become more active in fighting vandalism and threats to the country’s railway networks.
Mashudu Raphetha, National Transport Movement president, said the cost from vandalism of the country’s train system was being felt by the poor, who rely heavily on cheap public transport.
“Prasa and Metrorail are being destroyed by vandalism, which poses a direct threat to the economy.”
He said at the rate at which vandalism was occurring, the government, Prasa, the Railway Safety Regulator and unions needed to meet to discuss ways of protecting the country’s railway network.
Grant said that since the introduction of the rail enforcement unit in the Western Cape in October 2018 there has not been a single train-burning incident.
“Between October 2015 and last year we had R450m worth of trains burnt. This did not include the R200m worth of damage done to train stations and signalling systems. The rail enforcement unit, which is working together with the police and Prasa, seems to be paying dividends.
“One of the main ways to deal with this [vandalism] is to be proactive and for legislation, which is in place, to be properly used against people vandalising the railway networks.”
The transport MECs for Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal were unavailable for comment on steps taken in the provinces to stop vandalism.
Professor David Root, head of the Wits School of Construction Economics and Management, who specialises in infrastructure development, said that given where people are forced to live because of the apartheid spatial layout of cities, commuters are forced to spend vast amounts of their salaries on transport.
“The vandalism of transport infrastructure impacts commuters. It forces people to spend more on more expensive transport to get to work or school.”