Cape Town's burning trains: Here's what could be behind the destruction

Who is behind the "unprecedented" attempted derailment of the backbone of Cape Town's public transport system?

This is the multimillion-rand question plaguing authorities and Metrorail.

While conjecture is rife, Metrorail regional manager Richard Walker said he would leave the investigation into the motive for sabotaging the train system to detectives.

"I think we should ask who potentially could benefit. That is an issue for police to follow up. I don't want to speculate," he maintained.

July was a watershed for the embattled rail service provider, with three train torchings and one botched attempt being recorded.

INFOGRAPHIC: 32 train coaches damaged by arson in July alone - Metrorail

That month alone, 32 coaches were damaged as a result of arson. The damage caused to trains and infrastructure came to a total of more than R50m.

When asked on Friday if any motive had been established, provincial police spokesperson FC van Wyk responded: "Investigations continue".

Only one arrest has been made in connection with the latest incidents of suspected sabotage.

On Tuesday, a 24-year-old man was apprehended as he attempted to flee after allegedly trying to start a fire on a stationary train in Cape Town station at platform 11 just before noon.

Staff quickly put out the fire that was started on a train seat, preventing further damage to the coach.

Damaged Metrorail train. (Tammy Petersen, News24)

Between 2015 and 2017, 118 coaches were damaged – an average of just over three per month.

In May, a commuter was killed in an arson attack near Ottery station while another suffered severe burn wounds.

Walker, who has been in charge of the province's operations since 2014, started working for Metrorail in 1994 as a ticket seller. In all his years with the company, he said he had never seen this type of damage.

Same modus operandi 

"This is unprecedented. The deliberate destruction of infrastructure as well as the train fleet [appears to be] orchestrated," he said.

The alleged saboteurs believed to be behind the recent spate of torchings all used the same modus operandi: they pretended to be commuters before setting the carriage alight as the train arrived in the station.

The perpetrators seemingly ignite a fire and exit the carriage.

Seats are apparently set alight as those in the older trains are made of highly flammable material.

Walker refused to speculate on who could be behind "this type of attack on the system".

Civil society coalition UniteBehind says the current arson attacks should be declared a national disaster.

READ: Overcrowded, delayed and dangerous: Mom forced to pass baby through train window

"A national disaster is one in which a single province is unable to deal with the disastrous event effectively. This is clearly the case here," it said in an open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa.

"The continuous arson attacks, corrupt, unqualified, non-PSIRA (Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority) registered security, and theft of key equipment and infrastructure have crippled our commuter rail system. These are not random acts of violence, but a concerted effort against Cape Town's public transport system, and by extension, our economy. Our city and around half a million rail commuters are under attack."

UniteBehind said it believed the "scope of economic sabotage" was beyond the powers available to provincial government and the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) and urged national government to step in to get the rail system back on track.

Concerns attacks politically motivated

The coalition called for forensic units to find those responsible for the attacks, as well as "unified action" between stakeholders including Prasa, local government, national government, police, the Hawks and the National Prosecuting Authority.

UniteBehind gave Ramaphosa until Monday to respond to its call.

The organisation's spokesperson, Matthew Hirsch, said it was not far-fetched to suspect that the attacks could be a politically motivated attempt to "destabilise the rail system" as Prasa "cleans up" its board.

The attacks were too organised to be carried out by frustrated commuters, he argued.

Hirsch said the group wanted national intervention as "such little progress" had been made by provincial authorities.

ALSO READ: Cape Town rail transport 'situation' the worst in the country - Nzimande

Transport Minister Blade Nzimande last Friday visited Prasa's Paarden Eiland depot where he viewed damage to the state-owned enterprise's infrastructure caused during the various arson incidents. 

Nzimande questioned police on who might be behind the destruction, but they had no answers.

Minister of Transport Blade Nzimande on a walkabout at the Paarden Eiland Deport in Cape Town on Friday. (Ashraf Hendricks, GroundUp)

Walker said without a motive, finding those responsible was "like punching in the dark".

8 of 30 trains operating on central line

Earlier this year, the central line was closed for almost two months, forcing commuters to make use of alternative – and more expensive – modes of public transport.

The closure was owing to ongoing vandalism as well as the murder of an armed guard who was allegedly targeted for his weapon.

Brett Herron, mayoral committee member for transport and urban infrastructure, said the line, which runs through Khayelitsha and surrounding areas, should have about 30 trains operating. It currently has eight.

Taxis are the most preferred alternative for stranded commuters.

A trip from Khayelitsha to Cape Town by minibus costs between R15 and R16, depending on the pick-up location. Over 22 working days per month, return trips add up to between R660 to R704.

A single standard ticket from Khayelitsha to Cape Town costs R10. Monthly train tickets are R190.

Taxi industry denies involvement

Responding to claims that the biggest winner in this situation is the taxi industry, Congress of Democratic Taxi Associations (Codeta) spokesperson Besuthu Ndungane denied any involvement in the current sabotage.

"That's not how we go about providing our service," he insisted. "We don't involve ourselves in illegal activity."

Ndungane said the taxi industry had more than enough clients to transport.

"When [the central line was out of service], it put more pressure on us. There was more wear and tear on our vehicles and we faced the challenge of having to accommodate the stranded train passengers while still taking care of our regulars."

Security service providers wanting to sabotage Metrorail's current tender holders and contractors hoping to score off the refurbishment of the damaged coaches are also among the parties listed by those who spoke to News24 as having something to gain from Metrorail's troubles.

Metrorail currently has six security service providers: Chuma Security, Supreme Security Services, Sechaba Protection Services, Iliso Protection Services, Comwezi Security Services and Chippa Security Services.

Walker said any issue related to performance was dealt with according to the terms and agreements stipulated in the security contracts.

"Clearly we see that there is a challenge in terms of the security performance, but we also need to understand the level of crime has totally escalated. In certain areas it has increased and intensified to levels which are higher than what our security can respond to. We have seen a number of attacks, even on security guards," he said.

Dangerous job

The situation has reached a point where the company has reinforced its security measures by bringing in armed guards to, among other duties, escort its train crews. An armed response unit has also been contracted to focus on the embattled central line.

"We now need to have guys with heavy ammunition and firepower to respond to the threat," Walker said, pointing out that Prasa was "never established to become an armed force and to deal with that level of crime".

One security officer working at Cape Town station said staff members felt under threat as they were under-resourced and doing a dangerous job.

"Everyone knows about the criminal elements using our trains. Now imagine me going to a knife fight armed only with a baton. That's the only weapon we carry."

A Metrorail official walks passed a charred train carriage in Cape Town. (Ashraf Hendricks, GroundUp)

Prasa's security problems have resulted in the Railway Safety Regulator (RSR) refusing to issue the agency with a safety permit after it expired on Tuesday.

The RSR said Prasa "cannot demonstrate to the regulator that it has the ability, commitment and resources to properly assess and effectively control the risks to assets and safety of its customers, staff, contractors, visitors and others who may be affected by its railway operations".

MORE: Railway Safety Regulator issues Prasa a temporary safety permit

On Thursday, it was issued with a temporary permit valid only from August 2 to August 31 to allow operations to continue and to provide Prasa with "another opportunity to develop robust action plans that will address the identified inadequacies".

United National Transport Union (UNTU) general secretary Steve Harris said while there was a number of contentions regarding who would gain the most from crippling the system, the grounds for these assertions were shaky.

R48m pilot security project 

While the perpetrators remained on the run, UNTU's members were working under tense conditions, he said.

"Luckily there has been no human [casualties over the last month]. It's fortunate that during each instance, the fire is started before the train comes into the station, allowing the driver and conductor to flee," he said.

Harris said an expert task team needed to be appointed by Minister Nzimande to determine who was behind the attacks.

A R48m pilot security project funded by the City of Cape Town, provincial government and Prasa is expected to be operational by the end of September.

Each entity contributed R16m to fund the employment of about 100 dedicated law enforcement officers who will split their focus 40% on infrastructure protection and 60% on passenger safety.

The officers were in the process of being recruited and were expected to be trained and ready for deployment within three months.

Walker said it is hoped that the service will be able to operate at its full capacity of 88 trains within the next two years should its interventions to stop the current decline be successful.

Earlier this year the Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry conducted a survey of its members to establish how the "ongoing crisis" at Metrorail was affecting business.

It said more than 86% of respondents believed the situation threatened the sustainability of their businesses.

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