Drones join Prasa war on cable theft
Rail chaos after powerless trains grind to a halt costs billions, drives commuters to despair
Drones, 4m-high concrete walls and facial recognition technology. These are the Passenger Rail Agency of SA’s (Prasa’s) last-ditch attempts to deter the cable thieves who have left commuters stranded and cost the country billions in lost revenue as freight and passenger trains grind to a halt.
Prasa spokesperson Makhosini Mgitywa said the agency would start erecting the barrier walls in the Western Cape and Gauteng — which have been particularly hard hit by cable thieves and vandals.
Just fixing the problems on the central line in Cape Town and the line from Mabopane — Metrorail’s two hardest-hit routes — will cost an estimated R2.5bn
Transport minister Fikile Mbalula launched an agency war room in August last year to deal with cable theft, delayed trains, vandalism and arson.
Last week, Transnet said cable theft had reached epidemic proportions, with about 350km of cable stolen in the past financial year.
Transnet Freight Rail had been forced to cancel an average of 21 trains every day because of stolen overhead wires, said spokesperson Mike Asefovitz.
Replacing the cables has cost the freight operator R150m, while wages have been lost by embattled rail commuters and revenue lost to companies using freight trains.
Transnet has lost revenue of R400m for the financial year to date.
In 2019, the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Sacci) estimated that the cost of cable theft to SA’s economy was between R5bn and R7bn a year.
At the short end of the stick are commuters who are hamstrung by the lack of safe and dependable rail transport.
Before cable thieves disrupted the Metrorail service on the line from Germiston on the East Rand last July, self-employed builder Elphas Ntuli could catch a train all the way from Angelo on the East Rand to Park Station in the Johannesburg city centre.
The train was the cheapest way to get to work. “I was paying R8.50 for the [one-way] ticket,” said Ntuli. He must now pay R22 to catch a taxi.
The thieves moved in shortly after Prasa fired the security company that was guarding the line.
Ntuli is one of tens of thousands of commuters left stranded countrywide as Metrorail’s services grind to a halt.
Commuters in the Western Cape have endless stories to tell of late trains and trains that now do not run at all.
Sometimes, if there were train delays, Prasa wouldn’t even tell us. Then the employer says bring the proofTlhompo Mothapa, a train commuter
Tlhompo Mothapa, who lives near Philippi, previously relied on Metrorail’s central line trains to get him to his job at the V&A Waterfront.
Trains have not operated on that route for months, forcing Mothapa to rely on taxis, which eat into his pay. “The train cost R175 a week,” said Mothapa. Now he must fork out R880 a month — or R220 a week — to take taxis via Nyanga to the city.
Late-running trains also cost him money in docked wages. “Sometimes, if there were train delays, Prasa wouldn’t even tell us,” he said. “Then the employer says bring the proof.”
Mothapa claimed Prasa’s figures were often incorrect, causing further anger among commuters.
“We know the train is delayed by two hours but Prasa says it’s only one hour.”
Mothapa’s employer would still deduct two hours’ wages, however.
Though his frustrations run deep, he considers himself lucky to be able to afford the minibus taxi fare to get him to work. Elsewhere along the line where the Metrorail trains once ran, other commuters have given up.
“Some people don’t have money to go to work,” Mothapa said.
Commuters in the Western Cape suffered another blow on Thursday when Eskom cut Metrorail’s power supply after the train operator failed to settle its outstanding electricity bill. Power was restored later in the day after Prasa scrambled to pay the amount but too late for many commuters who had to find alternative transport home.
The busy main line between Johannesburg and Pretoria, which is used by both Metrorail and Transnet Freight Rail, has not been spared the attention of copper thieves.
In December, overhead cables were stolen between Irene and Pretoria stations, shutting down commuter trains and forcing the famous luxury Blue Train to take a long, slow diversion on Transnet tracks far to the east of the city.
When the overhead power was finally restored in mid-February, the contractors discovered that signalling equipment had also been stolen, leading to further delays.
When asked why it had taken so long for the overhead cables to be replaced, Asefovitz said: “This is a Prasa line. We [only] use it for two car manufacturers by running diesel trains.”
In a further blow to train users, the Railway Safety Regulator last week ordered Prasa to stop running all its Shosholoza Meyl long-distance passenger trains until it improved safety levels.
The decision followed an investigation into an accident on February 12 when a passenger train collided with a goods train near Roodepoort, killing one passenger and leaving several others injured.