Prasa 'people's train'. Picture: GCIS
Prasa 'people's train'. Picture: GCIS

It remains unclear precisely what "safety concerns" led to the Railway Safety Regulator (RSR) not renewing the Passenger Rail Agency of SA’s (Prasa’s) safety permit.

Prasa transports nearly 2-million commuters on its trains.

United National Transport Union (Untu) general secretary Steve Harris said they had no luck finding out exactly what safety concerns worried the RSR. "This is the dilemma we [have] found ourselves with." But in an interview with TimesLIVE, he sketched out some of the general issues related to train safety.

The regulator caused a stir when it announced that it was not renewing the safety permit‚ which expired at midnight on July 31. Prasa applied for an extension and was granted a temporary safety permit on Thursday, valid until the end of August.

Harris said some of the problems faced by Prasa include cable theft‚ manual authorisations‚ unsafe coaches, and the need to keep the trains running.

"You’d be shocked to see the state of the coaches. It happens that from time to time they just send out the train sets just to get the people moving and hoping that nothing will break down‚" he said. "It puts the lives of the train drivers and the guards at risk‚ because you cannot utilise the trains at normal speeds. This starts creating a build-up of delays‚ and delays then create animosity among commuters, and then you have torching of carriages again."

Harris said in a media statement in March that the RSR allowed Prasa to operate trains with manual authorisation if they travelled below 30km/h. A manual authorisation is when two control officers in different stations are not speaking to each other, but allow train drivers to continue on the route.

Prasa continued to operate trains before the RSR granted their temporary licence, saying it would have been impractical to stop them. Spokesperson Nana Zenani said it would have led to "an inability of almost 2-million commuters to reach their places of work" and "an inability of Transnet to traverse our network‚ costing million of rands to the economy".

Prasa said earlier in the week that the regulator‚ on July 25‚ raised three "critical" issues for it to address: an assessment of the condition of its assets; the need to submit a plan around its modernisation programme; and the "filling of critical work-grade vacancies".

RSR spokesperson Madelein Williams said in a statement on Wednesday: "The RSR is of the opinion that Prasa cannot demonstrate 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."