BR train 0501/BD 540 would not have derailed on 10 December 2019 had necessary precautions been taken, Botswana Railways (BR) staff members told the ongoing commission of inquiry in Mahalapye.
They blame the fatal accident in which two BR employees were killed on a raft of lapses, indecisions and negligence on the part of BR management. BR Senior Traffic Controller Simon Matenje revealed that there is a WhatsApp group that discusses everything concerning the running of BR trains. He said meteorological services had posted a memo warning that there would be floods on 4th December and shared it on the WhatsApp group. “The contents of the memo and their implications were discussed,” said Matenje who revealed that the group comprises most of the senior personnel in the BR hierarchy.
He lamented that although read and discussed the contents of the memo were “not given due attention.” Above that, on 9th and 10th December many BR staff members using the south bound and north bound trains warned relevant authorities about the possibility of floods, said Matenje. He believes there was negligence of duty on the part of management because everybody was aware of the floods at Moreomabele and Palla Road. “The relevant office should have directed stoppage of the trains or the adoption of an appropriate speed limit. “The best that management did was to give warnings about the floods but fell short of prescribing a solution,” he said. Matenje, who was on leave, said that he communicated his concerns about the reports of flooding and possible solutions to no avail.
When asked who exactly had the authority to do that, Matenje explained that it was the Operation’s Manager. Matenje also decried the lapses in the organisation’s system. He said motor trollies are helpful when inspecting the railway line. “However, they have not featured for a long time,” said Matenje who feels that regular inspection of the rail is a very critical part of safety. He said BR has not held any safety workshops in a long time. Mompoloki Rutherford, a train driver also appearing before the commission conceded that trollies had not been used on the BR lines for a long time. He said some senior managers use the train to inspect the line instead of trollies. “There are only two seats in the cabin but, contrary to safety rules, sometimes they just join us in the cabin which is a breach of the safety rules,” said Rutherford. Dikabelo Nawa, a retired train driver noted that BR workers were a sad lot because of pressure always exerted on them by management.
“Drivers work under pressure. The line between Mafikeng and Plumtree is old and very bad but we were always pushed by management to arrive on time. “There is just too much pressure. I once lost time and that put me into a big problem.” He said. He is also unhappy with the undergrowth and hanging branches next to the line because they obstruct the view of the crew. He appealed to the panel to recommend the introduction of a training centre for BR staff.
Peter Mokokwe, a recently retired train driver also complained that the rail road is never inspected. In addition to that, he told the commission that, he witnessed water around Palla Road on 9th December at the same place where the derailment later took place. Mokokwe, who himself did not alert control room about the water because he had heard through radio communication that his colleagues had reported the situation to control room, is also of the view that the disaster could have been averted had the 501 crew been alerted of the water situation.
On the other hand, a train controller named Moses Sethomo says he never got the communique warning the drivers about the impending floods. “There was a clear breakdown of communication,” said Sethomo who revealed that very often, even BR assets are wrongly used. “For example, sometimes freight locomotives instead of passenger train locomotives are used to haul the passenger train and this is a safety concern,” he noted. The hearings are continuing this week. The rail services that were suspended have since been resumed.