En­tity go­ing off the rails

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS -

IN­CREAS­ING con­cerns over the safety of an es­ti­mated 2.4 mil­lion South Africans who rely on trains to reach their des­ti­na­tions ev­ery day are grow­ing. It is even more wor­ry­ing that the ma­jor­ity of the pas­sen­gers are fa­thers and moth­ers trav­el­ling to work in fac­to­ries, re­tail and other me­nial jobs that pay very lit­tle.

Be­sides earn­ing slave wages, they now have to face this ever-present threat to their lives as they strug­gle to make an hon­est liv­ing to pro­vide for their fam­i­lies.

This vul­ner­a­ble group should not have to deal with the re­al­ity that train ac­ci­dents have be­come a com­mon tragedy on the coun­try’s rail­way lines in the last few years. The past seven days have brought to the fore the mag­ni­tude of the prob­lems of this pre­vi­ously safe mode of trans­port and the scary pace it is join­ing its road car­nage coun­ter­parts in be­com­ing a death trap.

Last Thursday, a deadly col­li­sion in­volv­ing a train and truck at a level cross­ing near Kroon­stad in the Free State claimed 19 lives and left about 260 peo­ple in­jured.

The Pas­sen­ger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) has read­ily ac­knowl­edged that most of the bod­ies were burnt be­yond recog­ni­tion, and fears that some fam­i­lies might claim an in­cor­rect corpse of their loved one.

It be­comes a sad case of pil­ing more mis­ery onto those al­ready griev­ing when they can’t iden­tify rel­a­tives, which could at the very least have given them some clo­sure.

As the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion process was in progress and the coun­try in deep mourn­ing, an­other train crash oc­curred in Ger­mis­ton on Tues­day, leav­ing at least 200 peo­ple in­jured. Al­though of­fi­cial Prasa fig­ures put the in­jured at 226 – 159 mi­nor and 67 mod­er­ate – com­muters who were ex­am­ined at Bertha Gx­owa Hos­pi­tal said they be­lieved the num­ber was much higher.

Surely some­body must be held ac­count­able for the lat­est crash, after it emerged that a man­ager signed off on a reck­less de­ci­sion to al­low the trains to be man­u­ally op­er­ated after the sig­nal ca­bles were re­port­edly stolen? In­no­cent pas­sen­gers be­came the col­lat­eral dam­age when the two trains col­lided at the Gelden­huys sta­tion as a re­sult.

We fully back the United National Trans­port Union’s call for the Rail­way Safety Reg­u­la­tor (RSR) and Prasa to be charged with at­tempted mur­der, and even hold the Gelden­huys sta­tion man­ager per­son­ally li­able. A strong mes­sage needs to be sent that the gov­ern­ment will not al­low the car­nage on roads to spill over onto the rail tracks. A crim­i­nal at­tor­ney is on record as say­ing there is a prima fa­cie case against the RSR and Prasa. He fur­ther con­tends that the le­gal test of do­lus even­tu­alis must be ap­plied be­cause, by al­low­ing the trains to be man­u­ally op­er­ated, the RSR and Prasa ob­jec­tively fore­saw the pos­si­bil­ity that their acts might cause deaths.

It is even more shock­ing that the ac­ci­dent comes just six weeks after the RSR an­nounced on Novem­ber 21 that the num­ber of deaths caused by rail­way op­er­a­tional oc­cur­rences shot up 8% to 495 fa­tal­i­ties in 2016/17 com­pared with the same pe­riod in the pre­vi­ous year. The RSR re­port said close to 60% of all oc­cur­rences in­ves­ti­gated were due to a hu­man fac­tor, which un­der­lines our as­ser­tion that neg­li­gence has been al­lowed to flour­ish in parts of rail op­er­a­tions.

Be­sides the ir­re­place­able loss of hu­man life, the train ac­ci­dents are eat­ing away at the econ­omy in terms of claims and com­pen­sa­tion for losses. DSC At­tor­neys, who spe­cialise in per­sonal in­jury law, es­ti­mate that train in­ci­dents, in­clud­ing col­li­sions, de­rail­ments, plat­form change and com­muter ac­ci­dents, cost South Africa over R400 mil­lion a year – money that could be put to bet­ter use.

It is in­cum­bent on Prasa and the RSR to curb the ac­ci­dents and re­store the sense of safe travel on trains. Any­thing less should be treated as crim­i­nal.

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