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Killer thieves

01 Apr 2002

We commented in RG 2.02 (p61), after a fatal collision in December 2001, on the deplorable state of commuter services operated by Metrorail, where the average age of EMU cars is 27 years and delays are endemic. While the EMUs are to be refurbished (p205), this will do nothing to alter the huge problems facing South Africa's railways, which suffered their 10th significant accident within 12 months on February 5 when anEMU crashed into the back of a freight train at Charlotte's Dale, 68 km north of Durban. Many schoolchildren were among the 24 dead and 112 injured.

The disaster occurred because trains were moving under verbal orders after just 2m of signal cable had been stolen to sell as scrap. Theft of copper, and crime generally, has become a huge problem for Metrorail. In the three months to July 31 2001, some 3400 trains were delayed or cancelled by cable theft, 1977 by vandalism and 373 due to sabotage of points. But cable theft is seen by courts as trivial, and offenders often get off with a warning, according to Spoornet CEO Zandile Jakavula.

Parliament was expected to receive last month the National Railway Safety Regulator Bill. Among other provisions, it makes directors of rail companies personally liable for accidents, which (unlike copper thieves) could mean jail. Transport Ministry spokesman Mike Mabasa said 'we hope to have the Act in place before June', but Charlotte's Dale may give potential bidders pause for reflection.