The fine art of train arson

David Bullard on why he is in awe of his fiery fingered friends in Cape Town


One of the essential skills needed to belong to that much maligned group “the patriarchy” in South Africa is the ability to start a braai fire. How often have you seen even the most defiantly feminist woman start a braai fire in this country?

Probably never. Where I now live the idea of using charcoal for a braai fire is pure heresy and is sneeringly regarded as the sort of thing a Joburger would probably do. You have to use wood and it has to be the right type of slow burning wood.

Which generally makes it more difficult to light. I like to think that over a period of 35 years practice I have become pretty good at getting a braai fire going but even I have to admit to failure on occasion.

No matter how you stack the wood, how many fire lighters you use and how much you blow on the embers the most stubborn of braai fires just don’t seem to want to play ball and you’re left with the option of using an oven or just eating salad.

Which is why I am in awe of anybody who can set fire to a whole railway carriage and I’m eighteen times in awe of anybody who can set fire to eighteen railway carriages. Without being spotted in the act and without attracting any attention until the flames are lighting the night sky.


Now, given the problem I occasionally have with braai fires, I would imagine that setting light to a railway carriage requires carefully chosen materials and a special skill. You surely don’t just rock up with a packet of Blitz firelighters and a Bic lighter and get to work as an arsonist. You need to know which parts of a railway carriage are more flammable than other parts too if you want a decent blaze.

The last thing you need is some pathetic smouldering mess redolent of a failed Bullard braai fire. I’m no expert in this field of terrorist activity but I would guess that a hell of a lot of petrol or some explosive device might be a pretty good way of destroying a railway carriage and getting the melty bits to spread the fire further.

Then there’s the access to the railway carriages to consider. Railway carriages by their very nature tend to be found on railway tracks. Unlike lorries, for example, they can’t be moved and parked in a dark corner before incineration. So it ought to be fairly easy to keep a watchful eye on them and make sure that men carrying large cans of petrol don’t have access to them during the hours of darkness.

However, none of this seems possible and we have all been asked to believe that the incineration of eighteen railway carriages worth around R60mln and crippling the Western Cape rail system even further at the end of November came as a complete surprise. This is even less believable since this is not the first time it has happened.

Torching commuter trains has become something of a regional sport in the Western Cape and one can understand the thrill a dedicated pyromaniac with no fear of being apprehended may get from the sight of a Metrorail carriage blazing away in the night.

The great mystery is why? Having had to suffer the inconvenience of railway strikes in the UK during the late 1970’s I can almost sympathise with the desire to set fire to a train as a demonstration against appalling service. But I fought against the temptation on the basis that a burnt out train was a non functional train and that wouldn’t be helping my cause one little bit. One wonders why that thought hasn’t occurred to our local arsonists and the only conclusion to be drawn is that the perpetrators are not railway commuters.

I suppose it is possible that a mental condition known as a “locophobia” (an irrational fear of trains) exists and that those setting the fires were frightened during an early part of their childhood by the more scary bits from the Thomas the Tank Engine stories. But that doesn’t seem likely.

It has also been suggested that a taxi organization is to blame. The thinking (such as it is) is that if people can’t travel by train then they will have to rely on taxis. Since every taxi I have ever encountered on our roads is already full to bursting during commuting hours I can’t imagine why they would feel the need to create an even larger pool of potential customers by burning trains. For once the taxi industry is probably innocent.

A modest reward of R100000 is now being offered for information leading to the identification of a couple of likely lads who the Metrorail CCTV cameras spotted lurking around the railway carriages pre inferno. Neither of them are carrying large cans of petrol or explosive devices and it may well be that they were commuters who turned up 4 hours early in the hope of getting a seat on the 5.45 to Eersterivier station.

They could be perfectly innocent but the obvious question arises, what were these CCTV cameras being used for prior to the fire and why couldn’t the arsonists be apprehended before R60 mln of damage was done?

It may seem like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted but something called the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act was assented into law last month. The act is designed to deal with the sort of problems bedeviling Metrorail at the moment. It could lead to train arsonists being sentenced to a 20 year prison term. Obviously they would have to be caught first and the already over stretched police would have to investigate and gather evidence which, measured by the current success rate, puts the odds very much in the arsonists favour.

Oh, one other thing. The President needs to sign off on the act and tell us when it actually becomes law and then the Minster of Police has to decide what constitutes “Critical Infrastructure”. So, in a word, nothing much is about to happen with the urgency the ANC are famous for.