'It has become a warzone': Train drivers refuse to work on Cape Flats central line

Cape Town – Train drivers will not work on Metrorail's central line through the Cape Flats until commuter and staff safety is guaranteed, the United National Transport Union (UNTU) said on Friday. The line has been closed since Wednesday.

"We have said to them that unless they can guarantee the safety of our people we are not going to drive," said UNTU general secretary Steve Harris.

The last straw was the murder and robbery of a 50-year-old security guard at Chris Hani station in Makhaza, Khayelitsha, on Tuesday night. His name is being withheld until there is certainty that his next of kin have been informed.

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"If there are volunteers who want to drive and take the risk themselves – they can," said Harris.

A meeting is planned with the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) next week to discuss the matter, but in the meantime, he said, UNTU drivers will drive on any line except that one.

"Every employee in this country has got the right to be safe at work," said Harris.

'Warzone'

Harris said driving trains in the last four or five years had become chaotic, especially in the Western Cape.

"It has just become a warzone," he exclaimed.

He said UNTU was also astounded that Prasa had left central line passengers in the lurch by not providing buses. They were only offered rides on Golden Arrow buses during off-peak hours with their Metrorail ticket for that route.

Metrorail regional manager Richard Walker warned that although Prasa upgrades were ongoing, commuters should brace themselves for longer commuting times in 2018.

According to guidelines of the new "average" train travel times:

  • The current average trip time is 90 minutes for commuters travelling from Muldersvlei/Wellington/Strand to Cape Town; 
  • Kraaifontein to Cape Town trips last on average 60 minutes;
  • The average trip length between Simon's Town and Cape Town is 70 minutes;
  • A trip between Bellville and Cape Town now lasts at least 45 minutes;
  • Commuters travelling from Retreat to Cape Town should prepare for a 40-minute trip;
  • Central line commuters can expect trip lengths of 60 minutes or more when travelling from Chris Hani/Kapteinsklip; and
  • A trip on the Lavistown route from Bellville to Cape Town will last 45 minutes.

"Until such time as the maintenance, repairs and specialised interventions of the stabilisation phase start to improve services, commuters and their employers are advised to adjust their travel patterns and expectations," he said.

Manual authorisation

UNTU said that Prasa should have started providing buses for inconvenienced passengers a long time ago.

It was also concerned that train movements were still, in some instances, being manually authorised, in violation of a Railway Safety Regulator (RSR) prohibition directive for the practice to stop.

This followed an incident where one train rear-ended another at a station east of Johannesburg on Monday. Two hundred people were injured. The first train had been waiting to be repaired when the second train drove into it.

Manual authorisation is when a train control officer phones a driver and tells them to move the train from one point to another, and to wait at the other point to meet the train control officer or wait for further instructions.

This is done via radio, or cellphone – sometimes the private cellphones of the train drivers, Harris explained.

Harris said drivers were being directed to break the law when they were told to carry out a manual authorisation instruction.

'Understandable' that drivers are nervous

"The train driver is in a catch-22 situation. The employer says drive, the Railway Safety Regulator says you are not supposed to drive," said Harris.

If they refuse, they get into trouble.

"It's very outrageous. This is what the public don't understand," said Harris.

UNTU has advised drivers told to carry out a manual authorisation instruction to lodge a grievance every time.

Responding to UNTU's labour action, Western Cape Metrorail spokesperson Riana Scott said it was understandable that train drivers were nervous.

"So there are no drivers," she said.

Contravention notices issued

Metrorail was trying to stabilise the security situation, and Scott said that in addition to the murder of the guard, a relay room at Bonteheuwel was ransacked on January 2, the latest in acts of repeated vandalism and theft.

She said Metrorail Western Cape would still conduct manual authorisation after giving the RSR "reassurance".

However, the RSR said that no special dispensation had been given to any rail operation after the directive was issued on Tuesday. 

"Where instances of non-compliances have been noticed, a contravention notice in line with section 45a has been issued."

Details of who had received these notices were not provided.