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BR employees expose safety lapses

Botswana Railways board of enquiry during the ongoing hearing for the derailment of BR passenger train PIC: KEOAGILE BONANG
MAHALAPYE: The ongoing commission of inquiry following the train mishap that occurred last December has seemingly exposed an organisational rot at Botswana Railways (BR) that employees claim climaxed with the fatal derailment.

Two employees of BR died in the December 10, 2019 passenger train accident near Pallaroad. The accident left a few critical and many passengers escaped with minor injuries. The derailment was supposedly caused by heavy water flow following torrential downpours in and around Mahalapye at the time.

Owing to the accident that shocked the nation, the Ministry of Transport and Communications set up a board of inquiry to investigate the causes of the accident. The commission is held here at Cresta Hotel. It is expected to last for about six weeks. This week the inquiry commenced with the questioning of the expert of the BD 500 series locomotives also the supplier of the same to BR. The BD 500 locomotive was used to haul the fatal train. Probing of the BR employees ensued thereafter and will last for two weeks. The submissions have revealed poor working standards at the nation’s rail services company.

Field services engineer, Motimedi Ngati of Progress Rail/EMD an American based company that supplies the locomotives condemned BR for using the BD 500 locomotives to haul passenger cabins. He stated that BR was cautioned against the practice in 2018. “The BD 500 series are not designed for passenger trains and they (BR) were warned against using them as they risked losing warranty for the locomotives,” he said. The locomotives without his authority hauled both the passenger trains from the north and the other from the south on the fateful night.

Following the accident, Ngati investigated what transpired within the locomotive cab from the eventer recorder. He pointed out that nothing was untoward from the train’s departure in Lobatse until the recorder lost communication at the time of the accident at Pallaroad.

The train was travelling at 64 kilometres per hour when the accident happened. “The alerter was handled very well and that is an indication that the driver was awake. There was nothing strange in the locomotive until the eventer recorder lost communication.” In a comment after his submissions, the expert questioned the criteria of decision making at BR on train movements during harsh rainy weathers. Following his interview, employees took turns in the hot seat and claimed serious malfunctions within the BR Management. They asserted that the malfunctions coupled with decrepit systems have always presented a ticking time bomb within the organisation. The December 10 accident, they said, was a result of a toxic environment at their headquarters.  They claimed that top management authorised movement of the train, despite their warnings of adverse weather conditions.

Senior traffic controller at BR, Phillip Makhokhoba, who assumed

an afternoon duty, issued a warning to stop the trains through the management WhatsApp group, but his caution was annulled.

He said that was despite doubts of running trains from a number of colleagues in the group. “The right thing was to stop movements of the trains and send out an inspection team.”

“There is no teamwork at Botswana Railways hence we experience such things, when in doubt they could have questioned my opinion. If I had the authority, I would have stopped the train. I was not comfortable running the trains under such conditions,” Makhokhoba told the commission. He added that danger was even detectable from the headquarters garage as it was flooded, and the rail line was washed away. “Trains were not allowed into the workshop on that day, but the lines outside were cleared,” he noted that was an indicator prompting thorough inspection of lines.  His colleague, Reginald Ditlogolo, an equally senior traffic control officer was blatant in his statement of blame against BR senior management. He submitted that the accident was avoidable had the leaders been decisive.

The senior traffic officer indicated that safety was compromised with an obsolete control system that fettered communication and sometimes left decision-making to the engine man.

“Things have been falling apart, the control system has collapsed. Our system can’t detect wash away or rail deferments. We rely on the engine man and the public. We make judgment from a distance,” he said.

He added that they detected the potential danger but as the control officers they have no authority in halting the trains. “We get instructions from the engineers, when they say lines are clear and the train operations should run then we dispatch the trains.”  Traffic controller, Booker Mareko shared Ditlogolo’s sentiments. He said the accident could have been avoided if pertinent precautionary measures were taken.  He said in similar situations in the past, track masters used rail trolleys to inspect hotspots in similar situations. “Now we drive in the fire lines, and it is difficult to pick defaults on the rail.”

The other issue that was a hot potato in the inquiry is the number of people who were riding in the locomotive. The expert had cleared that only two people are allowed in the cab but it appeared with BR the numbers are not restricted.

At the time of the accident, there were four people in the cab. It is not yet clear who authorised the other two members of BR into the cab but it appeared with BR the numbers are not restricted.





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