Infrastructure attacked: Criminals speed up the rail …
Hamberg station. (Photo: David Edwards)
Transnet reports that cable thieves have increased their firepower.
First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
Pointed trenches. Lookouts. Heavily armed shooters. Runners. SA’s valuable 30,000-plus-mile network of rail tracks is under attack, escalates in violence and escalates, according to state rail operator Transnet, particularly during the Covid-19 period when most of the country was stranded – with the exception of organized crime groups targeting the copper-rich utility infrastructure.
“Typically, you would place two guards at a station. The criminals would see it and they would not go there. Now they come in bigger groups, about 20 to 30. They come 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 indicates that cable theft incidents have jumped about 180% over the past five years. The rail safety regulator’s most recent report, for 2019/20, found that TFR suffered more than 5,000 incidents of asset theft and malicious property damage, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Cape Town Western accounting for the largest share of these.
The regulator also noted an alarming increase in railcar and station fires, with 15 cases reported over the period.
And that was before the July riots in Gauteng and KZN when crowds targeted the rail infrastructure, forcing Transnet to declare a force majeure event on its 688 km Natcor rail line that connects Gauteng and Durban and is key to the movement of thousands of tons of cargo every week, including vehicles, gold ore, aviation fuel, gasoline, wheat, fresh fruit and various freight 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 this firepower, ”Bennet said. He said the TFR, responding to the trend, had turned to technology, using drones for surveillance and putting trackers in cables, but that had simply resulted in an increase in the violence of cable thieving unions. .
“The level of aggression and force has increased considerably… On the service roads where our vehicles patrol, they dig trenches. They put nails on the roads to cut the tires. They have spotters shooting at our vehicles. They turned on substations to distract us, ”Bennet said.
Thieves targeting train tracks and stations to strip copper and illegally ship it out of the country has been a long-standing problem, dating back to the early 1990s, but a combination of Covid-19 and global copper prices reaching record highs. record highs gave the activity frightening impetus. The result has nearly crippled suburban train travel, which millions of working-class South Africans rely on as the cheapest mode of transportation. But it has also increasingly affected industrial operations, as copper thieves turn to Transnet’s long-haul lines that transport goods from inland mines and factories to ports for export abroad. In the first few weeks of September alone, Transnet reported an upsurge in cable theft: 40 km of cables in 152 incidents in 14 days, leading to massive delays and, even more dangerous, derailments when the wagons derailed.
Since the start of 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, there have been more peaks than troughs in terms of cable thefts and attacks on rail infrastructure, in a new vicious cycle in which the commuter train operated by the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) was first targeted.
Seeing the success there, criminals have infiltrated Transnet’s long-haul network, according to TFR’s security chief. “It feels like there is a level of deliberate sabotage. You watch the crimes. Sometimes they don’t steal anything, but they damaged the station, ”Bennet said.
Police and criminal intelligence have not been able to break the backs of multinational unions, mostly succeeding in low-level arrests of petty thieves who commit theft. They were also unable to prove their suspicions of sabotage.
“We know that copper is definitely exported (abroad) by unions. When the price of copper increases, our cable thefts increase. It’s definitely related… we’ve identified various groups and passed that information on to Crime Intelligence, ”Bennet said.
The most recent spike in copper theft, according to the TFR, was triggered by the massive theft of cables at Prasa and Metrorail. Rail experts, however, say rail utilities are partly to blame, as they have mostly abandoned large swathes of rail.
At the end of 2020, the Gauteng High Court overturned Prasa’s R4.5 billion security contract, with the removal of security companies leaving tracks and stations vulnerable, leading to an inevitable increase in cable theft. on the suburban and freight rail networks.
The African Railway Industry Association (Aria), however, criticizes Transnet for neglecting its infrastructure, echoing the railway safety regulator’s conclusion that “unused railway buildings, train delays, commuters in Anger, overgrown vegetation, uncontrolled security personnel and unmaintained service roads are among the main generators of railroad-related criminal activity ”.
Aria is pushing hard for private rail operators to take over and be allowed to operate privately on the Transnet rail network, a plan that has received the green light from President Cyril Ramaphosa.
“There is a huge underutilization of the asset. You can’t have something lying around and not use the asset. When you give up your asset, that’s the result. If you use the infrastructure, say about 70% to 80% of it, there is no room for anyone to encroach on your network. Build cabins on it and steal it, ”said Aria CEO Mesela Nhlapo. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 which is available for R25 from Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest dealer, please click here.