One person was killed and four people were injured in a suspected arson attack on a commuter train to Cape Town on Wednesday morning, the city's fire services spokesperson said.
Spokesperson Theo Layne said a body was found in one of the gutted coaches of the train near Ottery station, but it was so badly burnt that rescuers could not yet determine if the victim is a man or a woman.
Layne said the train driver was not injured, and managed to speak to the officer in charge.
“She thought she heard something being thrown at the train,” said Layne.
As a result, the fire in two coaches is being treated as “suspected incendiarism” – a term which describes starting a fire maliciously.
Metrorail spokesperson Riana Scott said the on-board fire started at around 08:48.
The train crew evacuated people off the train and decoupled the burning carriages from the rest of the train to contain the damage.
The high voltage overhead power was switched off, and emergency services and the fire brigade arrived on the scene.
Alternate routes kicked in and buses were requested to operate between the Ottery and Wetton stations.
However, the Cape Flats line was temporarily closed again.
“Cape Flats service (both lines) temporarily suspended until scene is cleared and police investigation is complete – estimated duration three – four hours,” said Scott.
This is the second incident of coaches catching fire in a month, after the tentative reopening of the Central Line following months of cable theft, burning of sub stations and attacks on train staff.
Train drivers and staff affiliated to the United National Transport Union (Untu) refused to work the line from January after saying the last straw was the murder of a security guard escorting a train.
Services had tentatively resumed when on May 22, News24 reported that a train pulled in to Retreat station with two coaches on fire.
Untu spokesperson Sonja Carstens told News24 after Wednesday’s fire that the union is extremely concerned about the two fire incidents, and fears that this may be orchestrated by somebody who stands to gain from rail travel being out of action.
Untu had also noticed that after the bus strike had been resolved, trains were being targeted again and drivers and staff were extremely vulnerable due to speed restrictions.
She said that because of rampant cable and infrastructure theft along railway lines countrywide, train drivers cannot go faster than 30km an hour, because they are operating via manual authorisation.
“With all trains on manual, and not going faster than 30km per hour, it makes them more of a target to criminals,” said Carstens.
She said this means that it is possible to throw a burning object through the open window of a train travelling at 30km an hour.
Carstens said a lot of work had gone into getting Cape Town’s Central line trains up and running again.
She added that usually when a train is torched, it is by commuters frustrated that the trains are standing still and delaying them.
However, in these cases, the trains are being targeted while they are on the move. DM
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