Deliberate train fires cost South African rail service $42.5 million


South Africa’s state-owned rail service PRASA has lost around 636 million rand ($42.5 million) over the past three and a half years due to deliberate train fires, parliament heard on Tuesday.

Most of the fires have occurred in the Western Cape province, which accounted for 71 percent or 451 million rand in damages, a report from the Passenger Rail Agency SA showed as it rolls out drones, armored vehicles and extra manpower in a bid to halt the wave of arson.

While the parliamentary committee was sitting, another train was set alight at Cape Town central station, where all train lines lead to the central business district and a site of several recent attacks.

“Our commuter rail system is under relentless attack. I would not be surprised if this afternoon’s incident is part of the well-orchestrated program of sabotage we have seen in Cape Town over the past few years,” said Brett Herron, mayoral committee member for transport and urban development at the city.

The report did not suggest the reasons for the deliberate sabotage, although poor and late services have at times been enough for frustrated passengers to set trains alight.

South Africa has the continent’s largest railway network, but it has been plagued by mismanagement and under-investment that has seen train use dwindle despite it being the cheapest form of public transportation.

“Commuter service is at its lowest performance levels of all time and is characterised by declining passenger numbers, from 543 million paying passenger trips in 2013/14 and 269 million in 2017/18,” PRASA wrote in a regular performance update to parliament’s transport committee.

PRASA also faces having its operating licence revoked by the regulator after a collision between two trains injured at least 320 people last week.

PRASA approached the courts for an interim order to lift the suspension of the safety permit imposed by the Rail Safety Regulator (RSR) and the matter is due to heard on 11 October.