Monday, September 13, 2010

Tourist train derailed by thieves seems nothing is safe anymore!

This was the scene yesterday after a steam-hauled tourist train carrying 627 people derailed near Cullinan after thieves removed some 40 wooden sleepers during the night.

Barring a few minor cuts and bruises, no-one was hurt as the train, operated by Pretoria-based steam club Friends of the Rail, was travelling very slowly when it derailed on the approach to Cullinan station.

The locomotive – which dedicated volunteers spent many years restoring to working order – was substantially damaged.

Sleepers “tie” the rails to the trackbed. Without sleepers, the rails would spread and topple under the weight of a train – which is what happened yesterday. Because the sleepers sit in a “ballast” of stones, it is almost impossible to see from the locomotive cab if they are missing.

Sleeper theft is one of South Africa’s hidden scourges. The sleepers, made from hard Australian yarra wood, are highly prized for making furniture – and sometimes for firewood – and in recent years, railway lines all over SA have been targeted by sleeper thieves. Some lines have lost so many sleepers that they have been closed since the cost of replacement has been deemed uneconomic.

Yesterday’s derailment happened on a line that sees many tourist trains during the year. The thieves don’t really care about the consequences, either for innocent passengers or for tourism as a whole. The cost of repairing the locomotive will be a heavy burden for the club which receives no funding other than what it earns from running tourist trains. The cost of repairing the damaged track will run into many thousands of rand – and Transnet is not keen to spend money looking after lines that are not part of its core network.

So, for the sake of a few hundred rands, a viable and growing tourism business gets a kick in the head. Meanwhile, because sleeper theft has a direct and punitive effect on the state of SA’s transport infrastructure, any investigation should examine the supply and demand chain. Where are these sleepers going and why?

PHOTOS: The top picture shows the locomotive, 15F No.3117, lying on its side after the derailment, top, and the bolts have been unscrewed and the sleepers slid out from under the rails, below. PICTURES: Courtesy of Friends of the Rail