Neels Blom Writer at large

The Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) has, once again, been put on the spot after a train en route to Pretoria derailed between the President and Germiston stations, the fourth railway incident in less than a month.

Steve Harris, the general secretary of the United National Transport Union, said the train derailed after high-tensile steel clamps attaching the railway tracks to the sleepers were stolen.

No one was injured in the latest incident. "We are very grateful for that, but it could have been fatal to both the train crew and commuters," said Harris.

On January 9, two people died and 200 were injured in a collision between two Metrorail trains at the Geldenhuis station near Germiston, Gauteng. A preliminary finding blamed the collision on a communication problem involving manual signaling. The manual system was adopted after the automated device malfunctioned due to theft.

An East Rand scrap metal dealer, Vernon Annandale, said thieves typically stole the signaling devices and other equipment for the value of the steel, which was sold for between R1.80/kg and R2.40/kg.

Prasa had not responded to news of the latest incident at the time of writing, but said earlier that it had embarked on R17bn project to upgrade all its signaling equipment. The new system was expected to be operational in 2019. Part of the upgrade was likely to include vandal-proof signaling devices.

Prasa was also taking steps to "ensure correct analysis of hot-spot areas, trends, times and days when vandalism occurs to ensure correct deployment of protection services", and planned to increase security visibility and patrols at vandalism hot-spots.

The Railway Safety Regulator imposed a ban on manual signaling after the Geldenhuis incident, though it was lifted when Prasa submitted remedial plans to the regulator.

In its 2016-17 state of safety report, the regulator reported that although fewer general safety incidents were reported year on year, theft and vandalism had increased sharply. It said 6,379 security-related incidents were recorded — up 13% compared to the previous year. These instances had resulted in 495 deaths and 2,079 injured.

The regulator’s spokesperson Madelein Williams said theft, which included the theft of copper wires, aluminium train-window fittings and rail clips that attach tracks to their sleepers, was "a huge problem".

Earlier on Wednesday, two Transnet Freight Rail locomotive sets were involved in a collision in Ermelo, Mpumalanga. Four people sustained minor injuries.

On January 4, 19 people were killed and 254 injured when a Shosholoza Meyl passenger train en route from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg collided with a heavy vehicle at a level crossing near Kroonstad in the Free State.

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