Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa: Large scale modernization in progress

Over the past few months we have brought you an array of stories on South Africa’s endeavours to upgrade its existing infrastructure. During the course of these features, certain names consistently appear, with the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA), a regular entity. It therefore made perfect sense for The SA-Mag to revisit PRASA, as 2013 begins to kick into full momentum.

PRASA02 As the government’s efforts to transform the country continue, many of South Africa’s cities are beginning to change in appearance. With every change, the prospects of employment are increased, with the country’s roads and rail networks playing a major role in improving access to opportunity for millions of people.

PRASA’s role cannot be underestimated, but remains very much a work in progress. The organization’s fleet is currently undergoing a major transition due to the age of existing rolling stock and it is facing the retirement of a third of its existing fleet over the next three years, as the coaches have reached the end of their economic lives. On average, the commuter fleet has a shelf life of approximately 42 years.

PRASA is responsible for a variety of services that require upgrading.

Metrorail is regarded as a commuter service; transporting over 2.2 million passengers in Gauteng, Cape Town, Durban and Eastern Cape regions. The rolling stock fleet of 406 train sets comprises coaches which were built between 1958 and 1985, with less than 3 per cent of these being built in the mid-Eighties.

Since 2007, Business Expresses have aimed to give the commuter a more luxurious travel experience with comfortable seats, curtains and carpets ensure a fresh and luxurious look. Onboard services include cabin and security crew, a complimentary daily newspaper and refreshments.

In addition to the above, PRASA operates the Main Line Passenger Services which comprise of Shosholoza Meyl and Luxrail (Premier Class). These services run localised inter-city passenger rail services within South Africa, although it is anticipated that at some point in the future, cross border services may begin.

The problem comes with the price of replacement, particularly for such a large scale operation. Rolling stock prices can be prohibitive and the lack of historical investment has left PRASA with its current situation of an ageing, unreliable fleet that has impacted more than 2.3 million daily commuters.

Of course, with time unrelenting, PRASA has made public its need for significant and imminent investment. In response, the Treasury has provided R40 billion for the initial ten-year phase of the twenty-year programme, which is less than half of the money that will be required to meet the extended demand for commuter services by 2035.

PRASA06As part of the overall strategy, December proved an important month for the organization, as it announced that it had selected Gibela Rail (a consortium made up of Alstom and local company Actom) as its preferred supplier of rolling stock for its fleet renewal programme.

French power and transport group Alstom has been operating in South Africa mainly in the power sector as a supplier of technology for Eskom’s two new coal-fired power stations, while Actom is an electrical engineering firm.

I am satisfied that the process was comprehensive, rigorous and exhaustive, and most importantly fair,” Minister of Transport Ben Martins said in Johannesburg.

The programme will see the replacement of PRASA’s existing fleet over the next 20 years through the purchase of as many as 7,224 new coaches.

As a state-owned entity, PRASA aims to make decisions that will not only bolster infrastructure within South Africa, but also benefit local prosperity. With that in mind, its procurement programme involves a selection process that aims to support local suppliers in train building and component manufacturing.

The decision to select Gibela Rail Transportation will inject significant impetus into this business, which will have to invest heavily in local engineering resources if it is to meet PRASA’s exacting requirements, creating a boost to the local economy.

Above and beyond the financial commitment needed to achieve this, Gibela is expected to invest in the intellectual property of each of its suppliers, enabling the local industry to meet the technical specifications for modern rail manufacturing. This is quite likely to necessitate the training and retooling of a wide range of manufacturing businesses within the country.

In contrast to locomotives, passenger coaches commonly require a wider, more diverse supply chain as each coach comprises of up to 600 separate components, including window frames, glass, doors, seats, seat covers and cabling, bogeys, traction and braking systems.

Just a week after the announcement of the Gibela Rail deal, PRASA unveiled plans for further upgrading of the nation’s trains, with the installation of air conditioning, security cameras and large seats in all passenger coaches.

The overhaul, scheduled for 2015, would introduce a fleet of blue and silver trains suitable for both commuter and longer distance journeys, which PRASA’s CEO, Lucky Montana, suggested will deliver a modernised operation:

These trains will bring comfort and the doors will close automatically. People who try and stop the doors will get hurt and there will also be no more hanging from trains,” he described.

The trains will have aircon and will have CCTVs. So those who burn trains – we will be able to catch them on camera. These trains will have a route map, so there will be a voice giving the routes. These modern trains will also have on-board communication,” he continued.

The modern feel to the trains will be further enhanced by the introduction of toilet facilities and WiFi, while the high-tech nature of the new conveyances will include additional safety measures, courtesy of a signalling system which will cause the trains to brake automatically, should they exceed speed limits or if two trains occupy the same track, or if a level crossing remained open.

Montana also revealed a number of improvements aimed at customer comfort, including special facilities to aid people with disabilities and those in wheelchairs, while the new-look coaches will boast 80 per cent more space, in a bid to eradicate overcrowding on the bust commuter lines.

Montana announced the changes, whilst fully recognising PRASA’s existing problems; “The current fleet have served the country so well, but they have now reached the end of their run.”

Whilst replacing rolling stock is an obvious priority, PRASA’s remit also covers many other aspects of rail in South Africa. This includes upgrades to stations, while sub-stations will also need replacement, to deliver a reliable supply of electricity.

Of course for an overhaul on such a grand scale, somebody has to pay the bill. Montana has gone on record as saying that this burden will not fall solely on the commuter:

We are not looking at increasing fares in the next five years on a massive scale; there will be adjustments to meet inflation, but we are saying that the current workers can’t bear the burden for the upgrade.”

To underline the importance of leaving a lasting legacy, Montana was frank in his assessment of the challenges ahead: “It was a mistake for South Africa to not invest in railway for the past 33 years; we are paying the price for that lack of investment.”