Train driver flees angry commuters

A train driver had to flee for his life after he was confronted by a group of angry commuters at Bellville train station, after train services were disrupted by service delivery protests.

The incident was linked to the ongoing service delivery protests in Langa, which forced Metrorail to suspend services on its central line after eight apparatus cases, two track boxes and numerous signals were damaged, wreaking havoc across the metro. Commuters on the central line were forced to make use of alternative transport or the shuttle services which ran from Bellville station.

The train driver, 57-year-old Derick Louw, a member of United National Transport Union (UNTU), arrived at the station on Tuesday September 20 with an empty train at 8.15pm. There he was confronted by a crowd of angry commuters who realised that he was not going to take them home, said Untu in a statement.

“They demanded that Mr Louw turn the train around and started hitting at the windows of the coaches with objects.

They threatened to kill him. As he was driving past the platform he realised that the train was burning,” said Untu spokeswoman, Sonja Carstens.

The incident took place between Bellville and Tygerberg stations.

Metrorail spokeswoman Riana Scott confirmed that Mr Louw had been on route to Cape Town and said that three carriages were destroyed in the process.

Mr Louw stopped the train, jumped out and ran to bushes where he waited as the commuters forced open the train looking for him. He ran through the bushes to Voortrekker Road where he managed to call for help, explained Ms Carstens.

This was the second incident for the day involving the father of three children. Mr Louw was driving a train from Kapteinsklip on the central line between Cape Town and Khayalitsha when he was confronted by four burning fires on the railway line.

“He waited for the flames to calm before going past only to be confronted by cement blocks that were placed on the railway line. He realised that the flames underneath the train could start up again and used the train to push the blocks out of his path. He had to stop the train and get out to remove a signal that was broken off and thrown across the railway line. Prasa suspended services on this route after the incident,” said Ms Carstens.

Steve Harris, general secretary of Untu, says a traumatised Mr Louw is no longer prepared to work on the central line and that he is currently being treated by a doctor for stress.

“Enough is enough. How many more innocent people must die before the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) and the government act?

Untu refuse so sit on the sideline and look how our members are being murdered. The union has instructed its legal team to prepare an urgent application to ask the courts to compel Prasa to adhere to its constitutional obligation by creating a safe working environment for its employees,” said Mr Harris.

Metrorail regional manager Richard Walker said: “It is our duty to protect our employees, customers and remaining assets to be able to fulfil our obligation of public transport to the communities of Cape Town. While we understand the concerns, we cannot condone the inevitable criminal behaviour that accompanies protests of this kind”.

Commuters took to Facebook following the incident. Earl Ryan September wrote : “It was commuters who made use of the train shuttle service, obviously there were delays and they were frustrated. I get their frustration but it does not justify setting a train alight.”

Liz Doubledee Madubedube wrote: “Is the train driver ok? It is sad undeed.”

And Asanda Bebula wrote : “Hoping train driver is okay.He or she must be traumatised.”

By Thursday September 22 services on the central line were still suspended. This suspension was partially lifted by Monday September 26.

Mr Walker said the rail operator had reached the point of no return after nearly twelve months of being under sustained attacks.

“We cannot afford to lose anymore rail infrastructure or carriages. Soon we will have to make the difficult decision – can we continue to operate train services safely given the extent to which critical infrastructure remains targeted.

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms these acts of vandalism that deprive loyal users access to affordable public transport and call on Western Cape authorities to act decisively to stop further destruction of an already fragile but crucial form of public transport”. He said it is likely to be days or even weeks before a full service will be able to be introduced similar to before the Langa protests started.