Neels Blom Writer at large
Metrorail trains. Picture: MARIANNE SCHWANKHART
Metrorail trains. Picture: MARIANNE SCHWANKHART

The Rail Safety Regulator (RSR) has criticised SA’s passenger rail entity Prasa following a collision between two Metrorail trains at the Mountainview station, north of Pretoria, in which four people died and more than 200 were injured.

The RSR’s acting CEO, Tshepo Kgare, said on Thursday that Prasa “continued to demonstrate the highest levels of lethargy and disregard for rail safety in its operations”, and that it contravened its own standard operating procedures as well as the directives issued to it by the regulator.

The regulator issued several safety contravention notices to Prasa in recent years. In October 2018, it suspended Prasa’s safety permit following a collision in Kempton Park in which 320 people were injured.

Prasa challenged the suspension in court, but an out-of-court settlement was reached, and the suspension was lifted. This avoided a countrywide shutdown of SA’s passenger rail system.

Kgare said the RSR had consistently highlighted the risks inherent to prolonged periods of manual train authorisations and that it continued to compel Prasa to provide proper control and supervision of manual train authorisation.

In its preliminary report on Tuesday’s collision, the regulator found that the rail section where the collision happened was under was under manual control, and that it had been since November 2018. It said this meant trains were under a speed limit of 30km/h.

It said the condition of the damaged trains suggested that the train traveling towards the Pretoria station may have been travelling at “considerable speed”, although the RSR would only be able to confirm that once the event-recorder data had been analysed.

The preliminary investigation also found that there had been a breakdown in communication between the train control officer and a driver and that they might have contravened language policy.

“After the train driver repeated the authority incorrectly, the [controller] acknowledged the incorrect authority. This resulted in the train entering the section between the Pretoria North and Mountainview station wrongfully,” the investigation found.

“This accident highlights failures at various levels,” said Kgare. “We therefore urge Prasa to address these shortcomings in all earnest.”

Neither Prasa nor the regulator have published recent totals for fatalities and injuries related to Prasa’s operations, but in its latest state of safety report (2016-2017), the regulator singled out Prasa as the biggest threat to personal safety on SA’s rail networks, noting sharp increases in several categories of operations.

Despite repeated attempts on Thursday, Prasa’s spokesperson could not be reached for comment.