Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Modest investment would have prevented P15 million-loss train accident

The 2016 train accident involving a passenger train is one that should never have happened. A locomotive travelling at 80km/hour rammed into a stationary wagon, pushing it for some 50 metres before coming to a stop. The driver had seen the wagon too late and could not apply brakes. Some coaches derailed, causing rail track damage for about 200 metres. Loss of business plus repairs were estimated to be in the P10-P15 million range.

The accident, which happened near the Tropic of Capricorn, could have been prevented had BR made a modest investment in a device called telemeter, a military-origin electronic device that records the readings and transmits them by radio. One unit is mounted in the crew’s compartment in the locomotive itself and the other on the rear-end wagon. The latter sends back data to the crew via radio-based telemetry.What happened with the stray wagon that caused the 2016 accident was that it detached itself from the rest of another train that had passed in that section of the railway line earlier. The Executive Secretary of the Botswana Transport and General Workers Union, Tsenang Nfila, says that if the train in question had been fitted with a telemeter, an alarm would have gone off when the rear-end wagon detached itself from the rest of the train. Resultantly, the engineman would have stopped the train and the trainman would have got out of the locomotive to reattach the wagon. That would have prevented an accident that cost BR loss estimated at between P10 million and P15 million

.“There is no way that wagon would have been left behind,” says Nfila who himself has trains’ working experience. “The vacuum braking system would have been automatically activated.”The telemeter, which is mounted on goods trains only, is in a short lineage of technology that is desperately trying to replace man. Before its introduction, the rear wagon was manned by a guard – now called trainman.

In time, the guard can was deemed a financial waste because it couldn’t be used to carry goods that would be paid for. That is when an electronic device called the “last vehicle indicator” was introduced. However, the latter’s use became problematic in two important respects: it would continually fall off mid-journey and an overzealous ex-manager would wrongheadedly blame the loss on trainmen – whom he fired. The trainmen were subsequently reinstated following a strike by train crews in 1995.The last-vehicle indicator would itself be replaced by the telemeter, which, as it happens, is experiencing its own set of problems. According to Nfila, the device is not hard-wearing and when it gives out, is sent to the Signals Department workshop in Mahalapye for repairs. The apparently less-than-efficient operations of that workshop has resulted in a situation where defective telemeters “pile up at the workshop.” The shortage results in some trains having to travel without telemeters. The 2016 accident proved how dangerous and costly this is.Oddly, a year after this accident, the situation had not changed. In a May 19, 2017 letter that she wrote BR management, the union’s Secretary General, Gaebepe Molaodi, raised the issue of telemeter shortage. The letter is headlined “Issues of Concern to BRAWU Relative to Botswana Railways Systems” and under the “safety” sub-section she writes: “Let train crews be provided with safety equipment, i.e. radios, airbrake gauges and telemeters etc.”

BRAWU is an acronym for the Botswana Railways Workers Union which has been transformed into the Botswana Transport and General Workers Union. With such transformation, Molaodi became president.Management responded to this particular letter almost a year later, with the CEO, Leonard Makwinja, promising to review the safety system and provide the equipment sought. Nfila says that the telemeter situation hasn’t changed and that it is only after an accident occurs that repairs are done speedily before the situation reverts to its abnormal normal.BR’s safety system comes to be under the spotlight following a train accident in which two employees – a trainman and Permanent Way Inspector – died. In accordance with the law, the Minister of Transport and Communications, Thulaganyo Segokgo, has appointed a board of inquiry that is currently sitting at Cresta Mahalapye Hotel to take evidence from those familiar with trains operations. In terms of the Railways (Accidents Inquiry Act, this board has the powers of a magistrate court and can summon witnesses.

Appearing before this board, a Senior Trains Control Officer, Reggie Ditlogolo, stated that this accident would not have happened had the engineers not ill-advisedly greenlighted trains’ movement over a water-logged track.There is another theory of what else might have prevented the accident: wider and higher culverts. The source for this information is a BR employee who is familiar with track construction and maintenance. He says that since inheriting the track from the National Railways of Zimbabwe in 1987, BR has not carried out major upgrades as should have been the case. He adds that the permanent way manual currently in use was inherited from NRZ and is outdated. By the source’s account, higher and wider culverts along the track would be more effective in transferring water from one side of the track to the other.

“Currently, the culverts are narrow and shorter and less effective in doing so,” the source says.For the most part, the BR railway line runs parallel to the A1 Highway, which is maintained by the Department of Roads. The source says that over the years, the Department has been upgrading the A1, culverts included.He explains further: “A1 culverts are getting wider and higher and the huge volumes of water they transfer end up on the railway line where it is not as efficiently transferred. Let me give you an example: an A1 culvert can transfer 5000 litres of water at a time while a railway culvert can transfer only 150 litres. The excess water covers the track, creating a huge safety risk for rail traffic.”If that is indeed so, there is a bigger, more disturbing issue here regarding coordination: both BR and the Department of Roads fall under the Ministry of Transport and Communications.

Addressing this issue in a different context, Nfila says that water that rail culverts can’t transfer imperils road traffic on the A1 because it flows back, causing flood damage to the road and impeding traffic movement. Molaodi’s 2017 letter also raises the issue of culverts. In it she suggests that “BR should build bigger culverts at all flood-prone areas along the railway line to minimise wash-aways during the rainy season.”For what it is worth, BR is said to be taking small steps in the right direction. 

Sunday Standard learns that a programme to upgrade culverts is in train and that, to that end, the Permanent Way Inspector who died in the December train accident had earlier done a site inspection in Ramotswa and met a contractor who will upgrade a culvert in that station.“But why wait for the rainy season to start before you do that?” queries the source.BR’s superintendence of its safety system has historically not been above board. Perhaps the most hideous blemish on its safety track record would be the years-long stewardship of the Safety Department by a school dropout who lied about his academic qualifications.In 1999, Mmegi published a story about a now deceased BR manager who, in the more laid-back 1980s, managed to hoodwink the Directorate of Public Service Management and the Ministry of Works, Transport and Communications (as it then was) into believing that he held the academic qualifications required for one to become an engineman.

DPSM hired, on behalf of the Ministry, the first batch of trainee enginemen who trained in Malawi. It is unclear if the man had any secondary school education at all but from what Mmegi established, he had lied about having done his Cambridge Ordinary School Certificate at Mater Spei Secondary School in Francistown as well as about having worked as a foreman artisan at the Orapa diamond mine. He had indeed stayed in the mining town there for a period of time but worked as a nightclub manager.After his training in Malawi, the man worked as an engineman and was later promoted to the position of Safety Manager. As would become evident later, he also lacked the professional aptitude required for this highly sensitive position. In January 1998, he caused a goods train coming into the Lobatse station to derail as a direct result of basically toyed around with a newly-installed signals system. While the loss from the accident ran into millions of pula, no disciplinary action was ever taken against him.

The Mmegi expose would come exactly a year later after this accident. Mere hours after learning that the story would be coming out in the paper the following day, the man went on an unauthorised 45-day leave and would later resign without ever having gone back to work.For an organisation whose safety system appears to be permanently domiciled in the ICU of whatever hospital ministers to ailing rail transport companies, BR has certainly neglected to join a medical aid scheme that its condition so stridently cries out for. According to the last annual Auditor General’s report, BR has not insured its assets.

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Sunday Standard July 12 – 18

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