Emerging evidence suggests that Botswana Railways sacrificed safety for profit in the run up to the recent fatal accident in which two crew members died and an undisclosed number of passengers sustained injuries.
A Botswana Railways Express train enroute from Gaborone to Francistown derailed earlier this month at a flooded area near Bonwapitse River.
Botswana railways documents passed to The Sunday Standard revealed a safety record stained with numerous instances of austerity driven lapses suggesting the recent fatal accident could have been avoided had management addressed safety concerns raised by staff.
A back and forth of letters between the Botswana Transport and General Workers Union (BTGWU), management and Minister of Transport detail how for the past three years authorities consistently turned a blind eye to safety concerns raised by the union.
In a letter dated 7th march 2017, Botswana Railway and Allied Workers Union (BRAWU) Secretary General then, Thapelo Motube Molefe appealed to the minister’s “high office to intervene in saving Botswana Railways from collapsing due to disregard” for safety standards by management.
The union pointed out that “there seems to be no safety oversight in the organisation to ensure compliance and application of safety rules.”
“BRAWU has tried unsuccessfully several times to engage Management on safety issues because Management is too defensive of its inadequacies.” BRAWU later changed its name to BTGWU.
In another letter dated 19 May 2017 addressed to Botswana Railways management a month before Leonard Makwinja was appointed CEO, the union stated: “Botswana Railways safety systems is found wanting, with consequential irregularities occurring in the organisation.”
The union asked that “safety systems be reviewed with the aim of revamping it.” They proposed that train crews be provided with “safety equipment; radios, airbrake gauges and telemeters etc, Botswana Railways should build bigger culverts at all floods prone areas along the railway line to minimise wash-aways during the rainy season.”
The union also recommended that “motor trolleys be used to inspect the line when floods were suspected and trains would be advised accordingly. BRAWU is also concerned that sometimes culverts material is dumped at places along the railway line and left there indefinitely and wash-aways would still occur while the material is piled up.”
Makwinja replied through a letter dated 8th March 8 2018, promising that Botswana Railways would “review the Safety system and provide the train crew with safety equipment such as radios, airbrake gauges and telemeters.”
He also promised that the organisation would “encourage harmonious working relations amongst employees especially with regard to the Trains Control personnel’s working relations with other staff members and consider reducing trans control officers’ working hours” as suggested by the union.
He said Botswana Railways would also consider constructing “bigger culverts in flood prone areas and timely utilization of culverts material which is usually dumped along the railway line.”
It is unclear if Makwinja honoured his promise.
On 21st June 2018, BTGWU chairperson Gaebepe Molaodi again wrote to Botswana Railways “Chief Executive Officer …requesting to meet with yourself within a week from today, on burning organisational issues that need immediate attention.
On the agenda was “Botswana safety systems concerns.”
The union also petitioned the Ministry of Labour. In a letter dated, 25 June 2018, addressed to the Director in the department of occupational Health and Safety (Ministry of Labour), Molefe requested “your department to urgently carry out an occupational health and safety inspection of Botswana Railways.”
BTGWU said it was “seriously concerned with the ever-deteriorating standard of safety and occupational health in the organisation. BTGWU cannot wait any longer, hence the request for an urgent inspection.”
The union even attached a letter seeking the intervention of the minister of transport “in one of BTGWU’s (then BRAWU) effort to get the safety concerns addressed. Unfortunately, there is no response to BTGWU’s concerns and the situation is getting worse.”
It is clear that Botswana Railways profit motive has taken precedence over workers and passengers’ safety pretty much for the last half decade.
In its letter dated, 7th march 2017 and addressed to Mokaila, BTGWU lists a number of accidents that could have been avoided.
On 16th November 2014, a train derailed at Mokgosi Hills between Lobatse and Otse due to poor track maintenance.
“The investigatory inquiry was chaired by the Safety Manager who in BRAWU’s view should have been the one facing the enquiry to ensure objective and holistic inquiry is conducted,” the union said.
On 15th March 2015 a train capsized at Ramotswa due to a wash-away. “We nearly lost its crew. We lost a locomotive and some wagons. The Safety Manager did not take any steps to ensure a similar accident does not occur in the future,” the union said.
On 22nd December 2015, due to malfunctioning safety devices, “three locomotives escaped from Lobatse station without a driver. The locomotives were thrown off the track in section die to the uncontrollably increasing momentum.”
Train crews were held responsible by Safety Department
“On 14th July 2016 at Pilane overhead bridge, train crews miscommunicated due to lack of safety equipment. A fellow crew member was run over by the train and fortunately only lost a leg. The inquiry is led by the Safety Department while they should be the ones being investigated,” BTGWU said.
“On 10th October 2016, a wagon accidentally detached from a preceding train a Capricorn. Consequently, the passenger train collided with the wagon after several hours from the time of the accidental detachment to the time of the collision.”
The union said “These incidences occurred despite all the aspects of the safety system that should have been working and could have prevented accidents.”
The union expressed concern that if the higher authorities do not act to “address the safety situation at Botswana Railways, more accidents that may lead to the collapse of the organisation are bound to continue.”
Botswana Railways which has been making losses for the past years was last year cited by the Auditor General as one of the five parastatals that have made a promising combined profit of more than P1, 5 billion.
According to the latest Auditor General’s report, Botswana Railways posted a profit of P48.6 million, compared to a loss of P43 million recorded during the prior year.
The report states: “For a business that deals in transportation of goods and services, the cost to repair its assets considering the increase in train accidents in the past few years, is likely to be high.”