“We are going to burn you!” angry commuters shouted as an injured train driver in Cleveland, Johannesburg frantically tried to get permission to keep his train on the move, after a broken signal delayed his train.
“Please help me! Please help me!” shouted Johan Beukes, as the people he counted on for help initially said they could do nothing for him when he phoned them.
As he begged his office to urgently “make a plan” for him to at least get the train moving, angry commuters banged on his door and shouted at him.
This recording of the driver’s ordeal was shared by the United National Transport Union (UNTU) at a summit in Cape Town this week with the Passenger Rail Agency of SA’s (Prasa) acting chief executive officer Cromet Molepo, Metrorail, police and unions. It was held to illustrate what problems in commuter rail transport was doing to drivers and commuters.
It is not clear when the recording was made.
After waiting 24 seconds for somebody to pick up the phone, he is heard shouting: “Please, they throw me against the head with a stone (sic). Please get this train moving. Please get this train moving,” says the panicked driver.
‘Just make plan’
He is informed that he has phoned Johannesburg, is told to speak to the right people and is transferred quickly to a woman who answers: “Cleveland”.
“Hello, ma’am. They throw me against the head with a stone. Please get this train moving. They [are] gonna burn this train now. Please. Please ma’am, please,” he implores.
“But then how can I do that if there is a train in front of you?” asks the woman.
“Ma’am my head is bleeding. They threw me against the head with a stone.”
She replies: “But driver, there is nothing I can do. There are trains in front of you.”
Still in a panic, as people bang on the train, he shouts: “Ma’am just make a plan please. Just make plan.”
The woman says: “Ja, I am trying. I will make a plan. Thanks, driver.”
He begs her to stay on the line. Beukes is eventually given a verbal authorisation number to proceed, by another man, while nobody speaks to him in his state of panic. At one time, laughter is heard.
‘I’m not coming back’
Beukes quickly focuses on the instruction given to him and says, once he has reached Johannesburg station, he has had it for the day.
“I’m going to leave this train at Joburg. I’m not coming back. I’m not. Okay. Shap.”
The murder of a guard last week in Cape Town was the last straw for terrified train drivers, and UNTU said its members would not operate on the central line that serves the Cape Flats, where the guard was killed, until their and commuters’ safety can be assured.
Last year driver Piet Botha was killed at Netreg station while training younger drivers. Four other people, either guards or drivers, have also died.
Acting Prasa CEO Cromet Molepo said during a tour of the Bonteheuwel split in Cape Town on Thursday, that the company loses the use of 80 coaches a month to vandalism or theft. A split is areas where trains change lines.
“This is why we appeal, and say, this is high treason to the people, and it should be regarded as such. There is no other description,” he said.
Molepo said the more fire power Prasa brought to protect the lines, the more guns the thieves brought.
He proposed scrapping all private security contracts for policing the rail network, the return of the railway police, and urgent action by the Department of Transport and the SA Police Service. He also wants a new type of cable that does not contain copper to be used.
In addition, he wants a wall to be built along the railway lines so that it is protected in the same way as the Gautrain in Gauteng. Currently, up to 20km of cable has been stolen on the Cape Town metro lines.
Metrorail Western Cape regional manager Richard Walker said the stolen copper was sold for between R60 and R80 a kilo to small “bucket shops” run by gangsters, and to scrap dealers. However, the devastation caused by the theft is massive.
Standing inside a gutted rail power station, he said they put in “nice” things like CCTV system for safety as well as other communication mechanisms, but none of this is working because they contained copper.
“Because they have all been destroyed,” he said.
The SA Police Service currently has a division staffed by around 3 500 officers, around 700 of whom are based in the Western Cape, so rail safety is done mainly by contracted security staff.
Last year, some of the companies did not get paid by Prasa, and an attachment order for some coaches was secured.
The head of the SAPS railway police is Major-General Michael Mohlala.
Mohlala said that in future, cable theft crime scenes will be completely sealed off by forensics officers, fingerprints will be taken and compared with metals sold to scrap metal dealers.
Previously, the crime scenes had been walked over by the repairmen and no clues were left.
Walker said the point of this week’s media tour was to show the extent of the damage that is causing the rail delays.
Next to the railway lines, lay the rubber outer casings of the cables, metres away from people’s homes. Long, neat trenches were dug by thieves.
In the meantime, Metrorail in the Western Cape posts daily commuter alerts that trains will be delayed due to vandalism and theft as damage is repaired and cables and other equipment are replaced.
Golden Arrow bus services are picking up the slack off-peak, for people who already have train tickets and no buses were being provided by Prasa or Metrorail.
‘Extreme safety measures are needed’
The Railway Safety Authority banned manual authorisation recently following a rear-end crash between two trains at a station in Geldenhuys, Germiston.
Prasa and Metrorail ignored the manual authorisation directive, opening themselves up to legal action, and carried on manually authorising trains so that commuters could get to work and back. The directive has since been lifted.
Angry commuters have been known to burn trains because of delays or cancellations.
The SA National Civic Organisation (Sanco) and the SA Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) have pledged to help Prasa keep trains and rail infrastructure safe.
“We will be there hands on to help,” added ANC Western Cape secretary Faiez Jacobs by telephone later.
The ANC in the province’s view is that the damage is deliberate and is done by somebody who stands to benefit from collapsing a rail system that serves mainly poor people.
“We are calling on the community to help protect the trains,” said Jacobs.
UNTU spokesperson Sonja Carstens, who supplied the clip of Beukes’ ordeal, with his permission, said the union is demanding massively armed protection to surround a train whenever it is forced to stop.
“This is not just a Western Cape problem. It is Germiston, Thembisa, Soweto, Durban and KwaMashu. Extreme safety measures are needed.”
UNTU general secretary Steve Harris said the union wants the same level of protection that airports get – where nobody can get near the train and commuters can be safe.
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