Johannesburg - A day after one of South Africa's worst rail disasters, Masabata Rannyane was desperately trying to determine whether five of her family members, including her nine-year-old daughter, were among the dead. Since Thursday afternoon, she has been frantically rushing between her Virginia home and hospitals in the Free State in search of her sister, brother-in-law, nephew and niece, who had been travelling with her daughter Puseletso. By Friday afternoon, Rannyane had just one more hospital to check before all hope was lost. “I don't know what to do. I need help,” she told the Saturday Star. On Friday, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) was clearing the accident scene and attempting to establish the cause of the derailment, which killed 19 passengers, including four children, and left 138 injured.
The Shosholoza Meyl train had been travelling from Port Elizabeth to Joburg when it was in a collision with a truck and its two trailers at a crossing in Kroonstad in the Free State. The derailment set several carriages ablaze, trapping some passengers inside.
Rannyane only heard the news when her cousin phoned her in a panic on Thursday afternoon. Her daughter, her sister, Motshidisi, brother-in-law Sanele and their two children, Anele, 9 and Sibongile, 5, were missing after the crash. By Friday night, they had still not been found. Free State Department of Health spokesperson Mondli Mvambi said its team were doing its utmost to help identify the 14 bodies taken from the train’s smouldering wreckage. Rannyane was a top priority, alongside the others who had come forward to determine if their relatives were still alive. “We will provide counselling. We are putting together teams to assist in the identification, and counselling for everyone involved,” Mvambi said. DNA testing may be required to identify those who had died. As Rannyane’s horrific search continued, another family was reunited. Five-year-old Samkelisiwe Madinda and his 11-year-old sister, Aya, had been taken to Bongani Hospital to treat their shock, but it was unclear if their mother, Daphne, was still alive. But on Friday she was discovered at Boitumelo Hospital, and she and her children were reunited.
Last night, Free State Health MEC Butana Komphela was still visiting victims of the accident and had been in contact with the National Commissioner of Police to ensure the certification of death certificates, counselling, contacting the next of kin of the deceased and accounting for all 19 bodies. But questions were being raised about drivers not stopping at rail crossings, a nationwide problem according to United National Transport Union general secretary Steve Harris. “It’s been a concern since 2010 and the Department of Transport were putting in an effort to deal with the problem,” said Harris. The department, he said, had mechanised some of the crossings, which used a boom to prevent motorists from moving on to the track when a train was approaching. Ishmael Mnisi, the spokesperson for the department, said it had been looking at the problem and at how other countries dealt with it. “Motorists in this country simply ignore crossings,” said the secretary of the Friends of the Rail Steve Appleton.
Friends of the Rail, which runs a heritage rail service from Pretoria to Cullinan, had a near miss when one of its trains nearly collided with a motorcyclist. “We had the whistle blowing and he didn't hear us. Then he looked up, opened up the throttle and we missed him by about 2 metres,” said Appleton.
Harris and Appleton believed that the Shosholoza Meyl might have been travelling as fast as 90km/* at the time of the collision. “The problem is that even if they had applied brakes, it would take between 500m and a 1km to stop the train,” explained Harris.
Martin Graham, an accident reconstruction expert and mechanical vehicle analyst, said authorities would have their hands full in trying to establish the precise cause of the train’s derailment. Pointing fingers at the truck driver were premature, as there were numerous factors that would have to be examined, he said. The train’s speed, the maintenance of the train and the area around the accident would have to be determined. The truck driver’s own conduct should be investigated, said Graham, including whether the truck had stalled on the tracks and if he was on his cellphone.
Riaan Terblanche, who was travelling with a large group of relatives on the train, blamed overloading. “This matter must be investigated in full and blame should not be shifted due to the lack of training and the fact the train was overloaded,” he tweeted on Friday.
The RSR issued the directive against Prasa, after an investigating into the crash between two Metrorail trains at the Elandsfontein Station on 1 June 2017 revealed that the two trains were authorised into a section at the same time, thus indicating poor management and unsafe execution of the manual authorisation process. Manual authorisation was necessary because the signals were not working due to cable theft. A commuter was killed, and more than 50 others injured in the crash.
The RSR issued the directive in terms of Section 36 of the National Railway Safety Regulator Act No16 2002 (as amended) for abnormal working conditions, that is, manually authorising train movements, which led to the Elandsfontein train collision.
Failure to comply with the Directive is an offence in terms of Section 45 of Act 16 of 2002 as amended, (National Railway Safety Regulator Act) and will result in criminal charges and/or a penalty being imposed in terms of the Penalty Fee Regulations 2011 as amended.
Harris says that the RSR has no teeth and should have suspended the railway services in Gauteng unless the signals were working. “How can we sit back and blatantly allow innocent train crew members and commuters to put their lives at risk knowing that death is a likelihood? UNTU, who represents most employees working for PRASA, will leave no stone unturned until justice is done,” says Harris.
UNTU warned the RSR on 14 December 2017 that it is failing its duty to South Africans.
According to Wessels both the injured commuters can also submit civil claims for amongst other their injuries and loss of income against the RSR and PRASA.
“The time has come that South Africans stand up to the maladministration of state-owned enterprises and watchdogs that is funded with tax payer’s money without adhering to any of its Constitutional obligations,” says Harris.