South Africa

PARLIAMENT: Train woes: Safety is a national concern, railway regulator tells MPs

Issues of rail safety and a dispute between the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa ( Prasa) and Railway Safety Regulator (RSR) over the attempted shutdown of train services in the country was the main focus at a transport portfolio committee meeting on Wednesday in Parliament.

In the first three weeks of October, there have been arson attacks at Metrorail in Cape Town and Germiston and a train collision in Kempton Park, Johannesburg. Following the collision on 4 October, the Railway Safety Regulator wanted to revoke Prasa’s safety permit, which was a key focus at Wednesday’s Parliamentary meeting between Prasa, the RSR and transport portfolio committee. While both entities were scheduled to report back on their Annual Reports, the attention quickly turned to what transpired after the Kempton Park train collision that left more than 320 people injured after a train collided with a stationary train. ANC MP Leonard Ramatlakane was quick to criticise the RSR for wanting to halt operations nationally, rather than only Gauteng, asking if the entity knew the consequences of serving Prasa with a notice that would mean operations would be halted nationally within 48 hours. We were fully aware of the consequences,” explained Nomusa Zethu Qunta, RSR board chair. Had the suspension been carried out, it would have meant that on Monday morning, 8 October, commuters would have had to make alternative plans as train operations would have halted -- including in Cape Town, where commuters experience ongoing frustration at train delays and safety issues during their daily journey to and from work. The suspension was put on ice after the Pretoria High Court issued a supervisory order that will see Prasa required to comply with the safety regulations as set out by the RSR’s safety permit. The RSR however, needs to provide confirmation compliance to Judge Cassim Sardiwalla, who issued the supervisory order. Confirming that the decision to revoke Prasa’s safety permit nationally was triggered by the Kempton Park crash, RSR board chair, Nomusa Zethu Qunta said the decision was not taken lightly. “The issues of safety and concerns by the RSR are national,” she said, and not contained in one region. Qunta said the RSR acted only because it wanted to ensure that Prasa complied to its safety regulations. Interim Prasa board chair, Khanyisile Kweyama, told the committee that she had sent a letter to the board and acting CEO of RSR to ask whether the entity could suspend train services in Gauteng, instead of nationally. Kweyama said the board of Prasa and RSR had three meetings since the board’s appointment in April this year. There had been meetings in July and August. At this meeting, the boards “discussed the concerns the RSR had about safety,” said Kweyama. Qunta said at the meeting in August, Prasa had indicated that they were working on a 12-point plan to get operations working properly again. But, “we had not seen it yet,” said Qunta. Kweyama, however, indicated at that time that the plan was not ready, but the board would now be available to present this plan to Parliament. This is not the first time that there has been tension between RSR and Prasa. In July 2018, the RSR suspended Prasa’s safety permit which led to transport minister Blade Nzimande intervening and allowing trains to resume operations. At the end of August, however, TimesLive reported that it was issued with a one-year safety permit. DA MP Chris Hunsinger said it was “embarrassing” that the railway regulator had been forced to take Prasa to court and that the two entities were pitted against each other over train safety. Speaking to Daily Maverick, Hunsinger said the RSR’s actions were to prevent further derailments, collisions and passenger trains. Hunsinger stressed that the directives -- 219 in all -- that had been issued by the RSR against the rail agency were “built up in a level of frustration” at Prasa’s non-compliance. DM

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