Unchecked vandalism on central line

Central line train tracks in Bonteheuwel are continuously vandalised by criminals.

Bonteheuwel residents want the central train line back because they can’t afford alternative transport, but continuing vandalism – including thieves sinking 10-metre deep holes to steal cable – means the service is unlikely to reopen any time soon.

The Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) closed the line in November 2019 after a wave of vandalism crippled the commuter service.

Prasa spokeswoman Riana Scott said the line remained closed while the parastatal considered how best to make it safe for trains to run.

There was only a limited service between Cape Town and Langa because kilometres of overhead cabling, along with rails and sleepers, had been stolen or vandalised, and there was no service beyond Langa because of illegal settlements on the tracks, she said.

“Infrastructure works cannot start in the areas where there are illegal land invasions and illegal settlements. A multi-functional process is under way to source alternative serviced land for relocation settlements,” she said.

Cable thieves have dug holes along the train line between Bonteheuwel and Netreg stations.

Chelsea Mitchell, of Bonteheuwel, used the central line daily to commute to work in Woodstock, but when the service was cancelled, her transport costs soared as she had to catch a taxi to Cape Town CBD and then back to Woodstock.

“Instead of spending R37 on a monthly ticket, I had to spend more than R200 for the month. I was working part time as a hairdresser, so I didn’t have extra money to fork out for transport. We always had to travel in a group on the train so that we didn’t get robbed or hurt,” she said.

Soraya Wilsnach, of Bonteheuwel, said the unreliable train service cost her her job. She boarded the train at Bonteheuwel and got off at Woodstock daily to board another train to Ysterplaat where she worked.

“When the line closed, it was difficult to get to work because I didn’t have money to take more transport. Covid hit and I already had a record of late-coming because of the late trains, so when they retrenched, we lost our jobs because we were deemed as unreliable,” she said.

Bonteheuwel ward councillor Angus McKenzie said thieves had dug 10-metre-deep holes between Netreg and Bonteheuwel stations last week, looking for underground cables.

Prasa’s Rail Enforcement Unit should be protecting the line from further damage, he said.

But Ms Scott said some security contracts had been terminated, funding had dried up for the Rail Enforcement Unit and the rate of vandalism outstripped Prasa’s ability to replace infrastructure.

“The area is considered a red zone by many local service providers. SAPS members, emergency services, fire and rescue and many others have been attacked. The line is flanked by opposing gangs. The rail service came under increased attack by criminals. Incidents of vandalism increased exponentially leading to total destruction of rail infrastructure required to operate trains safely. The topography of the area and the nearby bridge make it very easy to spot advancing patrols,” she said.

In the 2020 State of the Nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa said R1.4 billion would be allocated to the modernisation and refurbishment of the commuter rail network, including Cape Town’s central line, but Ms Scott did not say whether Prasa had seen any of that money.

Thieves dug this 10-metre deep hole between Netreg and Bonteheuwel stations, looking for cable.

Bonteheuwel Neighbourhood Watch chairman Graham Lindhorst said that Prasa employed Bonteheuwel residents to guard the line, but due to the line being shut down, the residents had no work and just stood around on the station platforms.

Prasa should secure the line properly before employing residents who had nothing to protect themselves with, he said.

“They want to have the line running by September, but they have many things to sort out first,“ he said.