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Exclusive: Damning letter from PRASA manager describes railway security meltdown

Railway police sit in first class carriages instead of patrolling trains and stations

Photo of people clinging onto train
Commuters hang on to a Khayelitsha-bound train. Archive photo: Mandla Mnyakama
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The breakdown of security on Cape Town’s central railway line cost the Passenger Rail Agency of SA ( PRASA) R100 million in a year, according to a damning letter from the regional security manager of PRASA, Ernest Hendricks, to the PRASA executive.

The letter, dated 31 May, and addressed to Tiro Holele, an executive member of PRASA at head office in Pretoria, describes in detail problems with the security system which has led to vandalism, cable theft, train delays and unsafe conditions on trains.

Hendricks told Holele that two performance audits — one by PRASA head office — had shown that the department was not meeting its mandate, and managers had been given 90 days to “turn things around”. “This deadline was not met and a two month extension was granted and yet again managers have not delivered on getting things implemented as part of the corrective action that needs to be taken,” Hendricks told Holele.

Among the problems he identified are:

  • Private security contractors are not performing and PRASA has “suffered huge losses” as a result. Trains have been set alight where security guards are deployed.

  • The relationship with the Railway Police has “soured”. There is no joint deployment, no joint operations, no police visibility on trains, no police visits to stations or depots, a reluctance to open case dockets or to arrest suspects, and police intimidation of PRASA staff. Hendricks said police did not prioritise incidents on the railways but only worked on reported crimes, and sat in first class carriages instead of physically patrolling trains. (The Railway Police report to the South African Police Service.)

  • Trains have become “easy targets to criminals” and there was not enough staff to man trains to prevent vandalism. “Criminals have become so desperate that they have even committed crimes in the presence of our commuters, who just become onlookers out of fear for their lives”.

  • Key areas of the rail network are not fenced, and “criminals have free access”.

  • The conditions of service roads is poor and some cannot be used in winter.

  • The growth of vegetation has made it easy for criminals to vandalise equipment without being seen, and obscures the view of the train drivers.

  • The lighting in the rail network is poor and it is “virtually impossible” to patrol the area.

  • The Western Cape region has no radios.

  • Not all staff have protective clothing such as bullet proof vests or firearms. Staff have not been sent on annual compulsory training exercises.

  • Most of the vehicles have more than 400,000 kilometres, are in “a poor state” and need to be replaced urgently. Some are damaged but there are no accident reports.

  • Departmental overtime is very high, though it has been reduced from an average of R2.8 million a month to R1.4 million.

  • Military veterans on the staff have criminal records which have not yet been expunged and as a result cannot be registered with the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority.

  • Many staff members are medically unfit for duty as a result of illness or substance abuse.

  • All managers were promoted four years ago, some of them skipping two levels. “It is clear that their appointment as managers was not in the interests of the business.”

  • Supervisors come late for work, don’t deal with matters of staff reporting to them, leave the workplace without permission and “don’t attend meetings or functions they must perform”.

  • There is low morale among staff and high absenteeism. “The members run away from work, desert their posts and also show complete disregard for their supervisors and don’t perform their duties as protection officials,” writes Hendricks.

  • Staff have not been issued with uniforms since 2014.

Hendricks suggested a number of solutions, including the “lockdown” of the most critical areas of the rail network with a brick wall. This would “drastically” reduce losses in these areas, he said.

Most of the losses were in the notorious “Bonteheuwel Split”, the area from Nyanga to Bonteheuwel and Bonteheuwel to Bishop Lavis. “For the past 12 months a total loss of more than R100 million was suffered by the organisation due to incidents which occurred in [the] Bonteheuwel split and the area up [to] Nyanga, ranging from vandalism of infra equipment, theft of infra equipment, claims as a result of injuries and fatalities”.

He also suggested:

  • A “phase out” plan to reduce the use of external security companies over a three-year period. This, he said, would “cut the contract security cost by 66.6% over two years and would allow the internal security department to police the environment and be held accountable to protect the train environment.”

  • Locking mechanisms on the trains, on-board cameras, buffers between coaches and foam to protect cables from theft.

  • Clearing of vegetation.

  • Design of service roads.

  • Hotlines at stations for commuters to report problems.

  • Better staff rosters and time-keeping mechanisms.

  • Guard monitoring systems in staging yards, hotspots and some stations.

  • Double cab, 4x4 vehicles so that response teams can be made up of four people.

Hendricks called for a “national security turn-around team” with clear target dates to be appointed by head office. The team could be housed in a flat in Cape Town instead of a hotel which had previously cost PRASA “more than R80,000” per person per month.

In response to a request for comment PRASA said: “it is important that we thoroughly investigate the allegations made in the letter. PRASA will then be able to comment with facts on the issue.”

The Railway Police did not respond to a request for comment.

Letters

Dear Editor

There was a time when Metrorail had a security service working on trains, I don't remember feeling safe even then. I reported an assault case by two of the security officers whom I got into an altercation with (they told me not to move in between the carriages). At the time the train was still in the station but not moving. They requested me to head back same way I came in (the very same way they said was wrong). As we were headed to Langa station, I took out my phone to document the incident because they were not even patrolling but just sitting. That's when they approached me, took me out of the train at Langa station, into an area where the wasn't any witnesses and the assault began.

At one point they even asked for a bribe (Langa Station, 2016) which I never gave despite the beating & intimidation. I demanded to see the manager. They let me go like thirty minutes later.

I reported the matter to Metrorail. I was told that the security service is no longer in service with them.

That was it, everything evaporated from there.

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