Prasa shapes the future of SA's rail

An artist's impression of the Gibela X'Trapolis Mega train. (Illustration: Gibela)

An artist's impression of the Gibela X'Trapolis Mega train. (Illustration: Gibela)

Almost three decades have passed since the last rolling stock procurement in South Africa, with the average age of the current fleet of rolling stock sitting at over 40 years. As a result, the current fleet is old and outdated and the rail manufacturing skills in the local economy have failed to keep up to date with the latest technology.

To fulfil the much-needed requirement of a modern fleet and in order to revitalise the South African rail industry, the Passenger Rail Industry of South Africa (Prasa) has undertaken a rolling stock fleet renewal programme over a period of 20 years, split into two 10-year periods. The programme, one of the largest in the world, will see not only the replacement of the current rolling stock fleet, but also the upgrading and expansion of the current rail infrastructure including rail depots, signalling infrastructure and the modernisation of stations. 

The first 10-year period of procurement includes the supply of 600 X’Trapolis Mega passenger trains, consisting of 3 600 coaches, by Gibela Rail Transport Company, a subsidiary of Alstom, at a cost of R58-billion, for delivery between 2015 and 2025. The first 20 trains will be built at Alstom’s Lapa plant in Brazil, but following this the manufacturing of the remaining 580 trains will be transferred to a purpose-built plant in Dunnottar, Gauteng. Gibela will also provide technical support and spare parts over an 18-year period. (This only reflects a portion of the total anticipated rolling stock investment of 1 200 trains or 7 224 cars over the full 20-year period.) 

The new rail procurement will embrace the vision of a railway that responds to the needs of the entire population and is not just a carrier of the working class. This vision has been implemented throughout the entire procurement process. 

As South Africa grapples with rapid urbanisation the need to provide improved transport infrastructure within cities becomes increasingly urgent. Given the space constraints, it is far easier for rail to respond to the population expansion than the road networks, which cannot guarantee transport times given increasing traffic congestion. This can be seen in many major cities around the world that rely on rail as the backbone of their economies.

Prasa’s old rolling stock, the well-known yellow-and-grey trains, were both built and designed in South Africa. However, due to the infrequent replacement of trains, the skills and capacity were not sustained within the South African industry. The new fleet procurement programme will go a long way towards addressing these skills shortages within the South African market, given the project’s 65% local content rating and the creation of 33 000 direct and indirect jobs over the next 10 years. The high local content threshold was achieved by recognising the fact that the rolling stock consists of many individual parts that are capable of being produced locally.

According to Piet Sebola, Prasa strategic asset development company group executive, the new trains will be phased in over a period of time, with the old trains being retained for the first 10 years of the project. These old trains will then be decommissioned, for which there are various options. The more conventional solution would be to sell them to other countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique, whose usage would be far less frequent than in the South African market, thus allowing the ageing fleet to be used beyond its useful life in the South African market. A more innovative solution would be to turn the coaches, with a few modifications, into housing for the underprivileged.

This reinvestment in South African rail includes many, much needed improvements from the previous set of trains. The new rolling stock will include features such as automatic train protection,  Wi-Fi access and air conditioning. Furthermore, the trains will be able to operate at speeds of 120km/h with the potential to be upgraded to 160km/h while carrying 1 300 passengers in a six-car train, an increase of about 10% over the old rolling stock. This is in stark contrast to the old trains that operate at approximately 70km/h, which led to lengthy travel times. 

The programme also includes aggressive investment in the rail signalling system and various contracts have been signed in this regard, including a R3.8-billion contract with Siemens in Gauteng, a R1.3-billion contract with Bombardier in KwaZulu-Natal and a R1.8-billion contract with the Thales-Maziya Consortium for the Western Cape upgrade. The new system will use a bi-directional signalling system to ensure that if one portion of the network collapses it will not have a spill-over effect onto the rest of the system. The higher operational speed of the trains coupled with the new signalling system means the trains will operate safely and reliably at intervals of three minutes.

The vision for South African rail also includes significant station modernisation. In the past, most stations in South Africa were designed to facilitate the movement of passengers onto and off of the trains. Now, stations will include restaurants, banks and shops so that passengers can address all their needs while in transit.

The operational aspects of the project present various considerations that need to be taken into account, given the fact that the new fleet will be phased in over time. This includes the deployment of the rolling stock onto the current grid alongside the old fleet. Consideration will need to be given to aspects, such as in which order to run the different kinds of trains and at what speeds.

Vandalism is also a concern. To combat this, there will be increased security at stations and improved protection of trains at depots.

Another interesting aspect is ticket pricing. Given the sheer size of the procurement one might expect the ticket prices to become unaffordable to most. However, according to Sebola, the pricing needs to take cognisance of passengers’ income. “You can never charge a market price, especially for the lower segment of the market,” says Sebola. This is an historic issue in the rail industry. The most likely source of funding for this pricing shortfall is a government subsidy. Another alternative is the cross-subsidisation of revenue earned at the modernised stations.

The first sets of rolling stock will be deployed in Gauteng and then phased into other provinces. The first corridor of development will be the Mabopane-Pretoria-Germiston-Johannesburg (Park Station) line. The Khayalitsha-Cape Town CBD line has also been prioritised.

According to Sebola, Prasa is in the process of conducting reviews of the rolling stock designs supplied by Gibela. This process is set to be completed by the end of November 2014. The first trains will then undergo testing from November 2015, with the commissioning of the rolling stock due shortly thereafter.

Alex Martin is manager: infrastructure and major projects  at KPMG