Trainjackings a ticking time bomb: Untu

United National Transport Union (Untu) spokesperson Sonja Carstens.
United National Transport Union (Untu) spokesperson Sonja Carstens.
Image: Nico Gous

Trains are hijacked or robbed every week and the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) is sitting on a ticking time bomb.

That is what United National Transport Union (Untu) spokesperson Sonja Carstens said on Tuesday at a press conference in Centurion. “Our members don’t carry their phones with them anymore‚ because they are constantly being robbed of their valuables. Phones‚ purses‚ you name it.”

A train hijacking is when commuters force train drivers to continue on a route they often do not know.

Carstens said trains are hijacked by commuters who become frustrated when trains run late or criminals robbing crews and passengers. “Commuters get furious and they simply point a gun at a train driver and force him either by throwing stones or with a knife or a gun to continue on a route.”

Untu general secretary Steve Harris said in a statement that train drivers are trained on specific routes and often drive “blind” when commuters hijack the train. “They don’t know where there are signals or a turn or a steep curve on the route. When forced to drive like this‚ they can easily derail the train‚ which could result in fatalities.”

Harris said the Railway Safety Regulator (RSR) allowed Prasa to operate trains with manual authorisation if they drive below 30 km/h‚ which contributed to delays. A manual authorisation is when the two control officers in different stations are not speaking to each other and allow train drivers to continue en route.

Carstens said trains should be able to stop in time if drivers adhere to the speed limit. “A train at full speed takes between 500m and one kilometre to come to a complete halt if emergency brakes are implemented.”

Harris said delays led to overcrowding and commuters sitting “anywhere on the coach just to drive along”.

Untu believes the solution is what is currently being done on the central line in between the Cape Town city centre and Khayelitsha‚ where police officers accompany train crews and deploy armed officers at stations.

Carstens believes train safety is neglected because it affects poor South Africans. “You will never find this similar situation happening at an airport. You will never be able to torch an airplane.”

She added: “You don’t have the international community using our yellow trains. Never. You don’t have businessmen and -women using the yellow trains. They can afford to buy a car‚ commute with the Gautrain [or] commute in another manner.”

Carstens said some of the dangerous routes included the route between Pretoria and Johannesburg‚ the central line in Cape Town and KwaMashu in KwaZulu-Natal.

The National Press Club invited the police‚ the Railway Safety Regulator‚ Prasa and the United National Transport Union (Untu) to the press conference.

National Press Club deputy chairperson Willem van de Putte said RSR and Prasa declined to attend if the police did not attend. The police did not attend.

Prasa‚ RSR and the police have been approached for comment.

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