Tuesday, July 14, 2020

BR warned about dangerously ‘wanting safety systems’ in 2017

More than two years before the fatal rail accident that happened last month, the Botswana Transport and General Workers Union sought an urgent meeting with the management of the Botswana Railways to discuss “wanting” rail safety systems.Union representatives wanted to discuss 12 items which they enumerate in a letter that they delivered to the Chief Executive Officer’s office on May 19, 2017. What stands out from that list are the following: train crews hadn’t been provided with safety equipment like two-way radios, airbrake gauges and telemeters; courses offered by the BR Training Centre in Francistown had not been accredited by the Botswana Qualifications Authority; disharmony in working relations between Trains Traffic Control Office staff and other employees; long working hours for Trains Control Office staff; inadequate on-the-job training for trains operating staff; inadequate training for train planners; absence of temporary, on-site accommodation for Civil Engineering staff attending to train breakdowns; dangerously small culverts at flood-prone areas along the railway line; inability of female station attendants to lift heavy objects; and detention of train crews in Mahalapye for excessive hours.

The response letter came almost a year later. To his credit, the CEO, Leonard Makwinja, expressed “regret” for taking too long to respond. If expressing regret is the same thing as apologising, that would mean that he apologised.“Our intention was to convene a meeting whereat these issues would be ironed out,” wrote Makwinja, referring with the plural possessive pronoun, to the executive management team that he leads. “However, since your respectful office has made a follow-up, with our office regarding issues raised, we have decided to respond in writing.”Whereas the Union’s letter had dealt with the issues raised in a somewhat substantive manner, Makwinja responded with one-liners under the heading “Suggestions on Improving Organisational Resources.”

He expressed appreciation for the issues raised and promised to look into the issues as presented by the Union. With regard to safety, he promised to review the safety system and provide train crews with the required safety equipment; to encourage harmonious working relations between employees; to consider reducing working hours of staff at the Trains Traffic Control Office; to conduct refresher courses for trains’ operating staff; to consider training train planners; to consider reintroducing a caboose (rail car with accommodations for the train crew) to be used during emergencies; to construct bigger culverts in flood-prone areas; to consider cushioning the tough conditions female station attendants are exposed to; and to reduce book-off train crews retention hours.

Still dissatisfied, the Union asked for a face-to-face meeting – “urgent meeting with yourself” is the language that the Union’s president, Gaebepe Molaodi, used in her June 21, 2018 letter to Makwinja. Top of the list of issues that the Union wanted to discuss at that urgent meeting was “Botswana Railways Safety System Concerns.” The meeting never happened until the fatal accident of December 9, 2019.In the “head” (called locomotive) of a Francistown-bound passenger train were four crew members: a trainee driver and her instructor as well as the trainman and a Permanent Way Inspector (PWI). The trainman (commonly known as “guard”) is in charge of wagons and acts as the lookout while PWIs are responsible for track maintenance. This particular PWI was tagging along for purposes of assessing flooding hotspots following heavy rains. In a water-logged section of the railway between Palla Road and Mahalapye, disaster struck.

The train derailed, resulting in the death of the trainman and the PWI. Later when he briefed parliament, the Minister of Transport and Communications, Thulaganyo Segokgo said that the rail line sheared off, leading to the first point of derailment;
that some slippers were observed to have broken while some had shifted upstream on the direction of water flow and that part of the rail culvert was also broken on the inlet side of the water flow; and that the forward portion of the occurrence train veered off the rail line.A month after the accident, the Union’s Executive Secretary, Tsenang Nfila, is adamant that the accident could have been prevented if the safety issues that the union has long raised with management had been speedily attended to.

“The accident was a convergence of several undesirable factors that should not have happened if there was a functional safety oversight,” he says. “Botswana Railways operational safety system (in the operations and civil engineering departments) has been gradually deteriorating since Botswana Railways took over from National Railways of Zimbabwe in 1987. Now it is at a stage where it needs a complete overhaul.”His recollection is that when BR took over from NRZ, there was a “robust operational inspectorate system” and that “now all the inspectorate positions have been phased out [and] inspection of the track using motor trollies following heavy rains has been abandoned.”Nfila expresses the cardinal rule in the operation of trains with the “safety first” slogan, adding that “nothing moves until it has been determined by competent personnel that it is safe to do so.”

He charges that BR’s Safety Department is “virtually irrelevant to operational safety” and only becomes visible after an accident has occurred. Even then, he adds, it does little more than find fault with employees involved before going back into hibernation.“This is the reason why past accidents and incidences never served as eye-openers and why the real causes of the accidents have not been addressed,” Nfila says.In line with the Railway (Accident Inquiry) Act, the minister has appointed a board of enquiry that has set up shop at the Cresta Mahalapye Hotel to take evidence from witnesses. It is interesting to observe that the testimony of one witness, Reginald Ditlogolo, confirms what the Union complained about with regard to disharmonious working relations between the Trains Traffic Control Office and other employees. What he told the board stands as evidence of sour relations between that Office and engineers. Mmegi quotes Ditlogolo, who is a Senior Control Officer, as saying that management greenlighted the movement of trains on the advice of engineers. 

“At the control room we don’t see anything,” Ditlogolo said.

“We take instructions from the engineers, if they say lines are clear and we can run the trains, we instruct the trains to continue.” The one other main grievance that the Union has is that it is being shut out of investigations of this nature. In terms of a MoU signed between the management and trade union in June 2001, “the parties agree to establish a Health and Safety Committee comprising of equal representation of the Union and Management.” No such Committee exists.Both the deceased were Union members which means that they associated themselves with the campaign to plug holes in BR’s safety system.

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Sunday Standard July 12 – 18

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of July 12 - 18, 2020.