Burning down the station - rail rage, South African style

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The Independent Online

A new form of "rail rage" has reared its head. South African commuters infuriated by late trains went on the rampage on Monday setting Pretoria railway station alight, causing damage worth 50m rand (£4.4m).

A new form of "rail rage" has reared its head. South African commuters infuriated by late trains went on the rampage on Monday setting Pretoria railway station alight, causing damage worth 50m rand (£4.4m).

Pretoria railway station is used by tens of thousands of commuters each day. The trouble began at 6.30pm local time, when commuters angry at delays attacked employees and guards, and smashed computers and a cash machine before setting furniture alight.

The fire quickly became an inferno, generating five-metre-high flames and raging until the early hours of yesterday before some 80 firefighters brought it under control. The roof and third floor of the station, which was built in 1910, were destroyed and the building suffered severe structural damage.

"The place is starting to collapse," said Johan Pieterse of Pretoria's emergency services. One person was treated for smoke inhalation but no other injuries were reported.

Honey Mateya, the head of the station operator, Metrorail, said there had been signal failures across Pretoria on Monday and the station's communication system did not work: "It was operationally hopeless," he said. "But this kind of behaviour is unacceptable. It's not good for our image.

Violy Viljoen, the owner of the Station Pub and Grill, watched 6,000 people march through the stately station's foyer, attacking everything in sight. People were screaming and train hooters honking, she said.

"There was not a security guard in sight," Mrs Viljoen said. "Sometimes the guards take off their uniforms for fear of being assaulted." Just last month a guard was stabbed in the head on a platform.

Commuters often resorted to vandalism when their trains were late, she said, though normally they vented their anger merely by smashing windows.

The station was cordoned off by razor wire and patrolled by mounted police and a helicopter yesterday. Its closure left thousands stranded.

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