Prasa’s dangerous plot

View of Riverfield cottages from the Steurhof-station side of the vacant land.

Diep River residents are fuming about unkempt railway land, about the size of Mayndardville-Park, in their midst, which is attracting vagrants and illegal dumping and which they fear poses a growing threat to their safety.

Miriam Rod and Lynne Stevenson, live at Riverfield, a cluster of 65 compact cottages in Trent Road, off Massinger Road and between the Diep River canal and the railway line that connects Diep River and Steurhof stations.

They are battling to keep the 10 plots clear of reeds, vagrants and criminals. The Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) owns the land but has ignored several emailed requests for it to cut reeds on the property, say residents.

“It is a danger to children and the elderly who walk their dogs on this greenbelt. With the dry summer, it is also a fire hazard,” said Ms Stevenson.

She said there was a fire there on January 22 last year and pictures of it were sent to Prasa.

Mervyn Ferreira, who moved into one of the cottages in January, said many unsavoury characters lurked in the thick vegetation.

Pointing to 5m-high reeds on the other side of his wall, he said he heard verbal and physical abuse most evenings until late, and occasionally could smell someone cooking.

Ms Rod said the land was also being used as an illegal dump and she had seen the culprits vanish quickly into the reeds.

Ms Stevenson said the issues dated back to 2014 when councillor Carol Bew had been involved and had asked Prasa to set up a maintenance programme.

The agency had cleared the land twice a year until March 2016 from which point all emails had been ignored.

On April 14 last year, Alderman Anthea Serritslev responded to emails from Ms Stevenson saying, “It is not an easy problem to resolve, as we are not allowed to touch other organisation’s property. We can only attempt to get them to clear or secure it themselves. Councillor Carol Bew has been attempting to do this.”

This week, in response to a media enquiry from the Bulletin, Ms Bew said she had written immediately to Brett Herron, the Mayco member for transport and urban development, stating that she had discussed the unkempt land with him at sub-council and he had undertaken to give her the name of the relevant official from Metrorail, Prasa’s commuter-rail division.

Metrorail spokesperson, Riana Scott, said rail reserves were usually cleared twice a year.

“Contracts do not make provision for ‘touch ups’ in between clearing cycles. Where funding proves insufficient for the extent of the need, our various customer-services managers collaborate with their local stakeholders to organise regular clean-up programmes in their respective areas,” she said.

When the Bulletin visited the area, we saw two men emerge from a dense grove of Port Jackson, from within which a metal-on-metal sound had been heard moments earlier. They climbed the railway embankment, one dragging a yellow plastic crate, the other hefting a heavy, cylindrical metal object about 40cm long.

Walking along the railway track, the man threw the object down the embankment. They were joined by another man in the car park at Steurhof station and proceeded to “attack” the metal object with an axe-like implement. A woman watched from a nearby block of flats.

Len Rod, who lives towards the end of Trent Road and whose house backs onto the river, said there had been a break-in the previous night.

“This is unusual because Plumstead Neighbourhood Watch (PNW), patrol the area and crime has been low lately,” he said.

He said he would rather have medium-cost housing on the land than it standing empty.

Charmaine Lillie, chairperson of PNW says they do patrol that area and have not seen a major increase in crime although there is a lot of foot traffic along the railway line, particularly to and from the Gaatjie informal settlement. What is a problem is the people erecting shacks under the bridges as far down as Victoria Road bridge. They are regularly removed but a few days later they rebuild them again with more joining them. This is an ongoing issue and could become a big problem down the line.

Ms Scott said Metrorail, with help from SAPS, continued to remove squatters from many pieces of railway land “but people are released soon afterwards and the spiral starts anew”.

Diep River police spokesman Constable Zak Marais, said they had not had recent reports of crime in the area. They knew about the vagrants living there and he said the public should call the police if they saw any suspicious activity.

Meanwhile, nearby, railway houses at Diep River station have been earmarked for demolition (“Upset over proposed housing development,” Bulletin February 8).

The land is also owned by Prasa and the agency has applied to the City to have it rezoned to allow for low-cost housing and a small-scale commercial centre. Neighbours say it will create traffic chaos in the cul-de-sac of Schaay Road, the site of Central Primary School and Glenbridge special-needs school.

The Bulletin asked Prasa why it was seeking to rezone land on the western side of the track when the vacant problem land to the east could be used instead.

Ms Scott said that to her knowledge vacant Prasa properties had been documented and efforts were made to either lease or develop them, depending on each property’s zoning and land use.