Passengers on a Shosholoza Meyl train at Durban station. Picture: MOHAU MOFOKENG
Passengers on a Shosholoza Meyl train at Durban station. Picture: MOHAU MOFOKENG

Intercity train Shosholoza Meyl’s services have been suspended indefinitely after the company, a subsidiary of the embattled Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa), contravened the temporary operating licence it was given by the railway safety regulator.

The regulator announced on Tuesday that it had issued Prasa with a prohibition directive which “prohibits all Shosholoza Meyl operations with immediate effect”.

The regulator said it had concluded its preliminary investigation into the collision of a Prasa train and a goods train, which occurred near the Horizon View train station in Roodepoort on Wednesday evening last week. One person was killed and several others injured. The Shosholoza Meyl train was travelling from Cape Town with 36 passengers and 14 staff members on board.

Regulator spokesperson Madelein Williams said according to the findings of the preliminary investigation, the trains that collided were manually authorised and that the Prasa train was travelling at 60km/h at the time of impact. “This exceeds the 30km/h speed restriction imposed on a line that is operated under manual authorisation,” she said.

Both trains were manually authorised by the Maraisburg Central Traffic Control Centre but they were not countersigned by the section manager. “Countersigning is when a section is under manual authorisation, the section manager is then supposed to come and confirm that the authorisation issued is indeed correct,” Williams explained to Business Day on Wednesday.

She said this was a “serious contravention” of a special condition that was issued to Prasa by the regulator on the issuing of Prasa’s temporary operating permit. “For trains to operate they need to be issued with a safety permit,” explained Williams. “At this point in time, Prasa has a temporary permit because it did not fully meet all the conditions of the permit. One of the conditions is that when you do manual operations, the section manager must countersign, which did not occur in this case.”

The regulator, said Williams, has recommended that a board of inquiry be set up to conduct a thorough investigation and make recommendations aimed at preventing or reducing the risk of similar occurrences in future.

Shosholoza Meyl operates long-distance passenger rail services and carries an estimated four-million passenger annually. In 2018, a total of 613 Shosholoza Meyl coaches were lost due to ageing, while the cost of maintaining existing train coaches amounted to R237.7m. 

Prasa, which has had five turnaround strategies since its creation in 2009, has been dogged by governance failures, financial challenges and allegations of state capture. It received a disclaimer from the auditor-general in 2019.

In January, transport minister Fikile Mbalula characterised Prasa as a broken organisation that was struggling to provide an efficient and committed passenger rail service. He said at the time that Prasa's downward spiral was self-inflicted as a result of poor and indecisive leadership, which allowed for a culture of impunity to thrive.

Mbalula dissolved Prasa’s interim board and placed the agency under administrator Bongisizwe Mpondo in December. 

Prasa spokespersons Makhosini Mgitywa and Nana Zenani did not respond to questions sent to them.

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