DM168

BUSINESS MAVERICK 168

Infrastructure under attack: Criminals ratchet up railway violence, says Transnet

The Hamberg train station. (Photo: David Edwards)

Transnet flags that cable thieves have increased their firepower.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Spiked trenches. Spotters. Heavily armed shooters. Runners. SA’s valuable network of more than 30,000km of railway lines is under attack, growing in violence and intensifying in scale, says state-owned rail operator Transnet, especially over the Covid-19 period when most of the country was in lockdown – except for the organised criminal groups targeting the utility’s copper-rich infrastructure.

“Typically, you would place two guards at a station. Criminals would see that and they wouldn’t go there. Now they come in larger groups, of about 20 to 30. They come in and shoot our guys. So our guards run away,” Marius Bennet, head of security and forensics at Transnet Freight Rail (TFR), told DM168. “You have people lying in the bush waiting to ambush you. It’s done with military precision.”

The TFR says cable theft incidents have jumped about 180% in the past five years. The most recent report by the Railway Safety Regulator, for 2019/20, found that the TFR suffered more than 5,000 incidents of theft of assets and malicious damage to property, with Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape accounting for the largest share of these.

The Roodepoort main station. (Photo: David Edwards)

The regulator also noted an alarming rise in the torching of train carriages and stations, with 15 reported cases in the period.

And that was before the riots of July in Gauteng and KZN when mobs targeted railway infrastructure, forcing Transnet to declare force majeure on its 688km Natcor rail line that connects Gauteng and Durban and is key to the movement of thousands of tonnes of goods weekly, including vehicles, gold ore, aviation fuel, petrol, wheat, fresh fruit and various cargo containers.

“The country’s infrastructure is under attack. With the change in the level of attacks and the modus operandi, we need more dedicated resources to match that firepower,” said Bennet. He said the TFR, responding to the trend, had turned to technology, using drones for surveillance and putting trackers in the cables, but that had merely resulted in cable theft syndicates increasing violence.   

“The level of aggression and force has dramatically increased… On the service roads where our vehicles are patrolling, they dig trenches. They put nails across the roads to cut the tyres. They have spotters shooting at our vehicles. They set alight substations to distract us,” said Bennet.

Thieves targeting rail tracks and train stations to strip copper and illegally ship it out of the country is a long-running problem, stretching as far back as the early 1990s, but a combination of Covid-19 and global copper prices reaching record highs has given the activity frightening impetus. The result has been a near-crippling of commuter train travel, relied on by millions of working-class South Africans as the cheapest mode of transport. But it has also increasingly affected industrial operations, as copper thieves turn to Transnet’s long-haul lines that carry commodities from inland mines and factories to the ports for export overseas. In the first weeks of September alone, Transnet reported a surge in cable theft incidents: 40km of cable in 152 incidents in 14 days, resulting in massive delays and more dangerously, derailments as carriages slipped off the tracks.

The Dunswart station. (Photo: David Edwards)

Since early 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic struck, there have been more peaks than troughs in terms of cable theft and attacks on rail infrastructure, in a new vicious cycle in which commuter rail operated by the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) was first targeted.

Seeing success there, criminals lasered in on Transnet’s long-haul network, according to the TFR’s security chief. “We’re getting the impression that there’s a level of deliberate sabotage. You look at the crimes. Sometimes they don’t steal anything but they’ve damaged the station,” said Bennet.

Krugersdorp station. Photo: David Edwards

Police and crime intelligence have not been able to break the back of the multinational syndicates, succeeding in mostly low-level arrests of petty thieves who carry out the theft. Neither have they been able to prove their suspicions of sabotage.    

“We know the copper is definitely being exported (overseas) by syndicates. When the copper price goes up, our cable theft goes up. It’s definitely linked … we’ve identified various groupings and we’ve passed on that info to Crime Intelligence,” said Bennet.   

The most recent surge in copper theft, according to the TFR, has been triggered by the massive cable theft at Prasa and Metrorail. Rail experts, however, say the rail utilities are partly to blame, as they have mostly abandoned large swathes of rail.

Late in 2020, the Gauteng High Court set aside Prasa’s R4.5-billion security contract, with the removal of security companies leaving tracks and train stations vulnerable, leading to an inevitable surge in cable theft across commuter and freight rail networks.

The African Rail Industry Association (Aria), however, blames Transnet for neglecting its infrastructure, echoing the rail safety regulator’s finding that “unused railway buildings, train delays, angry commuters, overgrown vegetation, unvetted security personnel and unmaintained service roads are among the main generators of railway-related criminal activities”.  

Aria is lobbying strongly for private rail operators to pick up the slack and be allowed access to operate privately on the Transnet rail network, a plan given the green light by President Cyril Ramaphosa.  

“There is a huge under-utilisation of the asset. You can’t have something lying around and not using the asset. When you abandon your asset this is the result. If you use the infrastructure, let’s say about 70% to 80% of it, there is no space for anyone to encroach on to your network. To build shacks on it and to steal it,” Aria CEO Mesela Nhlapo said. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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All Comments 15

  • Frightening! It’s incomprehensible how any self-respecting government can allow its strategic infrastructure to be completely destroyed & plundered. Not even in a failed state like Zimbabwe does this happen. According to Ramaphosa, “here in SA we do things differently…..”

  • This is terrorism in its pure form and if force is not met with force it will continue. Life sentences is the only answer; get them off the street.

  • Sadly, the taxi owners can also be held to account for the destruction of the rail system! The competition for public transport options is nothing they want.
    Perhaps the security services should look for the buyers of the stolen infrastructure – follow the money and you can stop the rot by cutting off the head of the beast. Unfortunately the desire to do the right thing is no longer around – far easier to punish law abiding citizens who haven’t been able to relicense vehicles because of Covid or speeding motorists caught on camera!
    Aria has the right idea ….why are they waiting around….hopefully it’s not for a juicy tender opportunity!

  • It is common knowledge that if one doesn’t look after something one is bound to lose it. My question is why haven’t the members of the board, CEOs and senior managers over the last few years been charged with dereliction of duty? My guess is that someone is being a very big salary to work as the head of security. What has that individual done? What is being done at board and ministerial level to force that individual and his host of well paid employees to account for what has happened? Oh silly me, it’s a collective decision so therefore we’re all equally guilty. Doesn’t one single person in this government and this cabal of protected employees have enough decency to do a job of work? I guess not. CR will trot out a whole line of excuses for taking no action and amongst them will be ‘we’re looking into the situation’. It’s like having a bunch of juveniles in every position of responsibility.

  • Can’t we catch one ship leaving the country and block exports to that country?

    This stuff is really annoying. They stole cables worth R550 from our church. It’ll cost more in labour to replace the cable.

    • That’s the exact point, isn’t it. It’s the cost and inconvenience of replacing what was there and not having power for a few days while repairs are made. The saddest thing of all is that the stolen cable was probably sold for R50 or less.

  • Vandals did not cause the peeling paint and rusting corrugated iron in these pictures – nor did they cause the weeds that grow 2 meters high. It’s Prasa’s lack of maintenance and general inability to run a reliable railway service that allows criminals to move in. Prasa have recently promised to get the Mabopane corridor in Tshwane working again by November this year – so we will see if they are able to keep their promises. Personally I think a situation where Prasa’s direct national control is reduced in favour of public private partnerships is the only way forward. Even with the best will and funding I don’t think we will see a reliable passenger railways service from Prasa for a very long time.

  • Cui bono? Who is profiting from this wholesale looting? Taxi bosses are obvious suspects. And where are our security services in pursuing the perpetrators and the criminal networks that they serve?

  • The time for pussyfooting around must surely be over. This wanton destruction for profit is treasonous! Bring in the army, supported by UN Peacekeepers if the SANDF is too incompetent or scared, and start taking out these terrorists.

  • A few army snipers with .50 cal’s would go a good way to discourage this looting of a strategic asset…..but then that would probably be labelled as racist instead of just protecting the integrity of said asset.

  • What depressing pictures. That as essential an element of economic growth as a mass-transit rail system could be allowed to crumble into such a pitiful state beggars belief.

    The sooner SOE management is put on performance-related pay the better.

  • It never ends; burn down schools, university buildings. What kind of people can possibly justify this savage behaviour? And there are never consequences; the looters, anarchists, thieves just carry on at will. Where is law enforcement? There is not one country on planet Earth that has their own citizens destroying on the scale seen in South Africa. Govt and SAPS sit on the side lines; clueless, leaderless and simply uttering their favourite little solution: “Wew condemn this and that”. We are in deep shite!

  • This plundering of infrastructure is crippling the economy and reversing our development potential. It is a national emergency and should be treated as such. The only solution is to clamp down on the scrap metal industry through tighter geographical permitting and regulation requiring mass balance accounting with supporting source permits as well as tighter reporting requirements. This combined with targeted broad surveillance by intelligence services should severely curtail the plunder.