World rail players in SA to talk safety as accidents mount
Business Day: 10 October 2005
Khulu Phasiwe, Public Policy Correspondent
RAIL safety standards and the strengthening of the roles of rail regulators will be on the agenda at the 15th International Railway Safety conference starting in Cape Town today.
Transport Minister Jeff Radebe and Public Enterprises Minister Alec Erwin are expected to address the conference.
Delegates from major rail operators in Japan, the UK, Hong Kong and India are expected to share their experiences.
The conference, hosted by rail utility Spoornet, comes at a time when rail operators across the world face an increasing number of accidents and derailments.
Spoornet said on Friday that the five-day event sought to find “innovative safety solutions” for the railway industry.
The parastatal has experienced a number of accidents involving its freight trains.
In May this year the dedicated coal export line running between the Richards Bay coal terminal and Mpumalanga coal mines was closed for a week following a derailment.
A train carrying an estimated 18000 tons of coal in 150 wagons overturned.
A Spoornet inquiry found that “the accident could have been avoided had the driver stuck to the prescribed safety measures”.
Driver negligence was also the cause of the biggest train crash in SA’s railway history in May, Spoornet admitted. It said human error was likely to have been the cause of the accident in June on the Pretoria-Polokwane line.
Industry analysts said that the causes of derailments included ageing rolling stock, poor signalling systems and driver fatigue.
The Rail Safety Regulator said that in “99% of the occurrences” in SA, pedestrians were struck by trains.
The regulator said 455 (2003: 582) train accidents involving pedestrians were reported last year. An additional 171 accidents took place at level crossings.
“A number are suicide cases,” the Rail Safety Regulator said in its 2004-05 annual report.
“A number of contributing factors lead to the high number of occurrences, including the mushrooming of informal settlements along the railway reserve, the removal of fencing, general ignorance of the dangers inherent in railway operations, and the flagrant ignoring of the law.”
Last year Spoornet launched a R30m public safety awareness campaign to educate people about the dangers of loitering near railways or building shacks near them.
The rail industry, like all other modes of transport in SA, faces mounting challenges, especially around safety, technology and the growing number of accidents.
In the UK there were 1001 train accidents in the nine-month period between April and December last year, according to the Health and Safety Executive, an independent health and safety regulator for a range of activities and industries.
The executive said fines to rail operators rose to £3,4m from £552000 previously.
A maximum fine of £2m was imposed on Thames Trains for offences that contributed to a collision in west London in 1999.
In Canada offenders are liable to a maximum fine of $200000 for companies, or $10000 for individuals.
In SA the Railway Safety Regulator can revoke an operating licence or give offenders a 15-year prison sentence.
But the regulator has not been functioning properly since its CEO Mpho Litha was suspended following the “breakdown” of her relationship with its board.
The regulator said in its 2004-05 annual report that not much had been done to recruit new staff since Litha’s suspension. The vacancies were mostly for safety inspectors.