Sipho Mabena

By Sipho Mabena

Premium Journalist

Prasa’s death trap trains keep on rolling

As the Rail Safety Regulator orders Prasa to address an ongoing brake problem, it has emerged a multimillion-rand electronic signalling system is ‘gathering dust’.

A multibillion-rand state-of-the-art electronic train signalling system is “gathering dust” at the signalling nerve centre in Gauteng of Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa), as trains ferrying more than a million passengers daily depended on a cumbersome manual system which has led to several crashes in the past.

The latest drama surrounding Prasa comes on the back of the Rail Safety Regulator (RSR) ordering the embattled entity to submit a plan by midnight on Tuesday, on how it would permanently address the lack of brakes for trains in its Braamfontein depot, which has resulted in technicians allegedly using worn out brakes salvaged from bins as replacements.

This was discovered after the regulator conducted a blitz inspection on the depot on 16 January following a tip-off.

The regulator confirmed receipt of Prasa’s corrective plan and that an investigation was launched “on the brakes of trainsets to ensure that it complies to the requirements and are safe to use”.

RSR spokesperson Madelein Williams said Prasa was not barred from running trains after the inspection but that a directive was issued that the agency had no brake blocks available or in stock.

A Prasa Metrorail train near Langlaagte station in Johannesburg, 4 February 2020. Picture Neil McCartney

“The RSR are thus of the view that should brakes have to be replaced, Prasa would not be in a position to do so due to the lack of spares. Prasa was, therefore, instructed to supply the RSR with a corrective action plan detailing how they will address the lack of spares,” she said.

The regulator shot down calls to release the corrective plan, saying it was not for “public consumption” despite the fact that it impacted on the safety of commuters.

Prasa spokesperson Nana Zenani did not respond to questions despite an undertaking to do so.

Meanwhile, manual signalling, blamed for accidents and delays, once again came under the spotlight, with the Democratic Alliance (DA) saying the number of both had drastically increased and that there was no proper intervention.

“Metrorail’s safety levels are way below standard. If it were an airline, it would have been long grounded,” said DA’s spokesperson on transport, Chris Hunsinger.

He said the hi-tech system in Germiston has become a “white elephant” because of issues with interfacing the electronic and manual system.

Hunsinger said this meant there was a problem with bridging the electronic system with the infrastructure of the manual operating system. He said this resulted in the drop in safety standards and has led to the RSR authorisation of the cumbersome manual signalling system.

“The manual system means the driver of train A has to phone for authorisation to cross or to proceed, which results in delays and frustrations but most frightening also leads to train crashes as we have recently seen,” he said.

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