Compiled by Kotie Geldenhuys
It is just after 05:00 in a cold, windy and rainy Cape Town when the packed train pulls onto platform three. Commuters rush into the already full train and try to find a place to stand, or if they are lucky, to sit. Others hang out of the open door. The only thing that is important to these commuters, is to get a space on the train with the hope that they will make it to work on time.
Sadly, not every commuter has the same aim or concern about time - these are the thugs who prey on innocent commuters. It happened to a passenger on a train in Soweto that her gold earrings were ripped off her ears as two men were holding a carriage door open when the train was pulling out of Orlando Station. The thugs jumped onto the platform and left their victim bleeding from both ears (Samelane and Nicolson, 2015). This was not an isolated incident and crime is a daily reality for train commuters across the country.
In its 2019 manifesto, South Africa's governing party, the ANC, confirmed the importance of rail services and stated that it will "invest in rail infrastructure to ensure it is safe, reliable and integrated with other modes of public transport. Rail must be the backbone of our public transport system" (Van Damme, 2019). But the sad reality is that a system which is meant to be a workable solution to traffic congestion, has become one of the most troublesome forms of public transport in the country. Thousands of commuters who board the Metrorail trains across six of the country's large cities to get to work, school or university, have endless complaints about the trains and the (lack of) service. As if trains that run late, suspended services and overcrowded, vandalised trains are not enough to deal with, commuters also have to face the risk of becoming a victim of crime in the railway environment.
Role-players in the railway safety environment
There are a number of role-players in the railway safety environment which include:
- The Department of Transport which is the custodian of all types of transport in the country;
- Transnet which is the leading freight logistics company in South Africa that should enable effective growth and development of the South African economy by providing reliable cargo transportation and handling services that fulfil their client's needs;
- the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) which is entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring that the organisation provides safe and reliable rail commuter and passenger services (Madzivhandila, 2019);
- the Railway Safety Regulator (RSR) which is responsible for maintaining safe railway operations by means of suitable support, monitoring and enforcement, guided by a regulatory framework (RSR's State of Safety Report 2017/2018);
- the Bombela Concession Company which introduced a unique railway concept to the country, namely private sector participation, passenger and asset
- security, railway safety due to its design, and regional fast transportation at 160 km/h. The Gautrain has been in operation in Gauteng since 2010; and
- the SAPS, but more specifically the Rapid Rail Police Units.
Rapid Rail Police Units
Prior to 1986, the South African Railway Police Force (SARPF) was an independent police force until it was disbanded and its members were transferred to the South African Police (SAP). Although the custodian of policing in the railway environment was the SAP, railway duties were neglected, since their focus had shifted to the high-priority crime areas away from the rail environment.
Madzivhandila (2019) refers to the incident in which Juan van Minnen, who was a final year electronic engineering student at the then Cape Technikon, was attacked and stabbed on 8 June 2001 at approximately 19:00 while he was travelling in a first-class carriage between Fish Hoek and Rondebosch. He died the following day due to his injuries. This case led Cabinet to decide on the implementation of a strategy to combat crime within the rail environment and mainline services, with the objective of rendering a professional crime prevention service in the railway environment in South Africa.
The SAPS Rapid Railway Police Unit (RRPU) was established in 2004 to play a vital role in the railway environment and perform its duties as commanded by the Division Visible Policing. Rapid Rail Police Units are strategically situated in the respective provinces, with the aim of enhancing proactive policing in the railway sector (Madzivhandila, 2019).
In 2013, the Division Visible Policing was tasked to implement the concept of rapid rail policing in the railway environment. The decision entails, among others, the conversion of Metrorail police stations, National Mobile Train Units and the Gautrain Unit into specialised Rapid Rail Police Units (RRPUs). The pilot project started in the Western Cape and was rolled out to Gauteng, the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal (SAPS, 2017). At present the RRPU covers approximately 33 000 km of rail lines nationally (SAPS, 2019a).
The RRPU is mandated to execute a range of crime prevention duties and the functions of the RRPUs included:
- Rendering a visible policing service within the rail environment to address safety of commuters, passengers, freight and the rail transport system;
- conducting a preventative and reactive policing service within the rail environment;
- providing a rapid rail policing service within the rail environment; and
- performing crime prevention and crime combating operations in the rail environment (SAPS, 2016).