UNTU concerned over Prasa safety permit after three rail incidents in KZN

Three safety-related rail incidents in KwaZulu-Natal have prompted the United National Transport Union (UNTU) to question how the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) was issued with a safety permit.

"The union would like to warn Prasa and the RSR (Rail Safety Regulator) to seriously look at the safety permit granted for another year, [because] serious incidents are rife. [They will] have blood on their hands," UNTU general secretary Steve Harris said on Friday.

Prasa was issued with a one-year safety permit to operate the country's trains until July 31, 2019.

This follows three life-threatening incidents on train routes.

Before its previous safety permit expired, the RSR warned Prasa in writing in July that it had "serious concerns" about the passenger rail operator's spares procurement action plans, according to Harris.

"The RSR informed Prasa that the unavailability of spares has resulted in poor or non-availability of trains, resulting in less signals being operational with consequential increased manual train authorisations and the associated high risks that come with the process," said Harris.

He said the RSR also criticised the inconsistent spares procurement processes Prasa had followed in different regions.

"UNTU does not believe that Prasa managed to rectify all its problems in August after the RSR was only prepared to grant it a temporary safety operating licence that would have lapsed by midnight tonight, 31 August 2018."

Safety management

He added: "The RSR itself stated that the progress made by Prasa with the implementation of the special conditions over the past two years is dismal as it relates to critical aspects of its safety management system."

On Tuesday, a mast pole fell on Metrorail train 0734 at Fraser Station just outside Tongaat on the North Coast-Stanger railway line while it was carrying commuters.

"UNTU can only thank God that [none of] the union's train crew members and no commuters were injured. The incident was reported to Prasa's operations management," said Harris.

On the same day, two carriages on Metrorail train 0260 disconnected while emergency brakes were applied. There were tyres that obstructed the railway line. 

"The emergency brakes of the one coach were not in a working condition and the emergency brakes of the second coach were weak. The two coaches disconnected while the train was still in motion. The crew managed to stop the coaches after 500 metres," Harris said.

Nobody was injured in the second incident although the crew and the commuters were very traumatised. According to Harris, the incident was also reported to Prasa's operations management.

In another incident on Friday, frustrated commuters at the Umbogintwini Station near Durban allegedly hijacked the South Coast railway line.

"When [the crew] wanted to get into the other side of the train, they were pushed around and verbally abused while commuters prevented them from entering the train to return to Durban. Objects were placed on the railway line to block the train."

He said two unarmed protection officials who escorted the crew were assaulted.

The train crew was apparently forced to continue on the route as the commuters threatened to torch the coaches.

Jaco du Plessis, an independent attorney specialising in civil claims and criminal law, said that Prasa and the Minister of Transport would be liable if any of the train crew or commuters died or were injured.

"The employees and the commuters or their families can sue Prasa for trauma, their injuries, medical expenses, loss of income and potential loss of income."

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