Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa : Unlocking potential

Unlocking Africa’s potential is a vision so many have held over centuries. In modern times, the advent of globalisation and the realisation of Africa’s resources have focussed attention further on what is needed to develop the continent. As with much of the region, South Africa is mineral rich but the need for a reliable transport network remains one of the biggest challenges for the nation to fully realise its potential.PRASA04

That is the legacy handed to Tshepo Lucky Montana, Group CEO at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA); “The future of Africa has once again become a subject of much discussion in the context of the major transformations currently underway in the global economy,” he states. “Economists and other experts forecast significant growth in Africa over the next decades and suggest that the Continent will become one of the key markets within the global economy.

“We want to shape our own development, set the development agenda in a manner that responds effectively to the needs and demands of the African masses. We want to promote balanced and equitable growth and development in the Continent and ensure that this occurs on a more sustainable basis.
“It is in the context of major transformations and shifts in the global economy that Africa should define its role and future. African Railways have such a critical role to play as catalysts for sustainable growth and development.”

PRASA01For exactly those reasons Africa Rail has become an essential platform for the African Railway Operators, with a raft of issues to consider including: technology modernization, investment, the financing of rail infrastructure, private sector participation, improved operational performance, safety practices, skills development and of course the role of the Railways in promoting social and economic development.

In South Africa that remit lies with PRASA, the state-owned enterprise responsible for the majority of passenger rail services across the country. PRASA was launched in December 2008 following the renaming of South African Rail Commuter Corporation (SARCC). The SARCC owned commuter rail-related assets, including stations and surrounding land, infrastructure and rolling stock, while the services were operated by Metrorail. Initially Metrorail was an operating unit of Spoornet, Transnet’s rail subsidiary; in 1996 it became a separate business unit of Transnet. Long-distance passenger rail services, meanwhile, were operated by Spoornet (now Transnet Freight Rail) under the name Shosholoza Meyl.

In 2006 ownership of Metrorail was transferred to the SARCC, unifying the responsibility for commuter rail – and two years later came the emergence of PRASA which in subsequent months took responsibility for Shosholoza Meyl and Autopax. This left PRASA as the owner of all the passenger-carrying operations of the former SATS.

Today PRASA consists of four branches: Metrorail, which operates commuter rail services in urban areas; Shosholoza Meyl, which operates regional and inter-city rail services; Autopax, which operates regional and inter-city coach services; and Intersite, which manages the property owned by PRASA.

Whilst the organisation’s mantra may be clear, Montana says there is still much to do: “The state of African Railways today still leaves much to be desired. It is important that African Railways respond to the challenges of our times and transform to realize their full potential.

“It is important that African Governments consider seriously the issue of investment in railway infrastructure as a basis for modern economic development and integration. Perhaps, Africa needs to make that bold decision that investment in its railways, ports and other economic infrastructure must be done today driven by a long-term forecasts.”

PRASA02After lengthy investigation PRASA has drawn up an extensive list of improvements it feels will dramatically enhance South Africa’s infrastructure needs.

In a June announcement, Montana highlighted the role that Government has to play in making improvements sustainable for the long term: “South Africa has adopted a bold infrastructure programme of over R1 trillion over the next five years, championed by His Excellency, President J.G. Zuma.

Infrastructure investment is focused in the key areas of water, energy, telecommunication and transport, including public transport. Public investment in infrastructure is not only supported by the national fiscus but a significant part of the investments are generated by State-Owned Enterprises such as Transnet and Eskom. The role of SOEs in infrastructure development is critical at this level of development.”

A total funding commitment of R25.9bn has been granted to PRASA for the period up to 2013/14. This increased capital allocation will enable PRASA to accelerate its total infrastructure modernization strategy over the next 3 – 5 years, in anticipation of the acquisition of new rolling stock and for creating additional capacity for increasing demand in commuter rail services.

Although more than 40 per cent of the budget granted to PRASA is still required to maintain the existing old rolling stock fleet in order to sustain an acceptable level of rail service provision in the interim, a total of over R13.5bn will be channelled to the infrastructure modernization program, specifically preparing the system and infrastructure to be compatible with the new generation rolling stock that will be tendered during the course of the 2012/13 financial year.
This budget excludes the acquisition of a total new train fleet over the next 20 years valued at an investment of more than R123bn over the next 20 years. The first new trains are scheduled to be introduced into the system by 2015/16.

The infrastructure modernization program includes a number of national programs to renew the system, alleviate current capacity constraints and to rectify safety critical deficiencies in the current system. A specific modernization program is also included for the total modernization and remodelling of three priority rail commuting corridors in the country, one in each of the metropolitan conurbations in Gauteng, KZN and Western Cape.

Key national renewal programs, such as the introduction of new rolling stock and the national re-signalling program are also aligned with the priority corridor modernization completion program, in order to ensure the presentation of a total renewed and modernized system on the first 3 priority corridors and offering a total new urban rail service to the commuting public of South Africa.

The infrastructure modernization program will create up to 7,000 direct construction and downstream industry jobs over the next 3 years focussed on key strategic projects:

The re-signalling and modernization of the Gauteng, KZN and Western Cape signalling installations over the next 5 – 10 years totalling over R17bn. Phase 1 of the Gauteng re-signalling has already commenced at a value of R1bn.

Capacity Enhancement Projects included building a rail link for the Bridge City development north of Durban and the Greenview doubling east of Tshwane. Both projects are large multi-year infrastructure capacity expansion projects which will be completed during 2013.

The Bridge City development in Durban consists of a new station, a public transport intermodal facility and a 3,2km rail extension from the existing rail network into the Bridge City development.

The Greenview capacity improvement project involves the construction one new station, two station conversions/upgrades, a road over rail bridge, and the doubling of a 4,5km rail section.

Over 50 stations are part of a station improvement program with a total investment commitment of over R1bn which will include the provision for universal/disability access, commercial facilities to enhance revenue generation at stations, intermodal connectivity as well as enhancing the customer and communications interface at stations.

PRASA06There will also be a much-needed expansion of the rail commuter system with PRASA accelerating the planning and feasibility of four priority expansion projects to ensure the system is extended to reach marginalized areas and provide access to economic opportunities.

Montana believes that the investment being will help to take South Africa further down the road to unlocking that much-fabled potential, but remains realistic; “There are many lessons we should draw from the PRASA Rolling Stock Fleet renewal Programme. The first is that we implementing the Fleet Renewal Programme despite the fact that PRASA does not have the Balance Sheet to fund such a massive project. However, the needs of the country over the next 30 years are so critical that without an efficient and functioning rail system, our attempts to grow and sustain our cities and economy will never work.

“Secondly, the delivery of modern railway technology presents an opportunity to revitalize and renew the railway engineering industry within the country and the African Continent. To this end, striking the right balance between Price and Quality on the one hand and Economic development Objectives becomes of paramount importance.

“Thirdly, that despite the fact that we are introducing new modern trains we have made a choice that we will retain the Cape Gauge for our commuter rail network. However, new inter-city projects of the future would be based on the standard gauge over the next two decades.”