PRASA: All aboard the rail revolution

South Africa’s rail network has creaked its way into the 21st Century in need of upgrade. Help is very much at hand through the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA), the state-owned body responsible for most of the country’s railway operations.

At the time of writing, PRASA’s fleet continues to go through a transition period right now which has been brought about by the age of existing rolling stock – a third of which faces imminent retirement in the next couple of years, as coaches reach the end of their economic lives. On average, the commuter fleet has a shelf life of approximately 42 years.

blurred-trainIn July of last year, PRASA, in conjunction with the Gibela empowerment consortium, revealed the interior and exterior designs for Prasa’s fleet of 600 Alstom train sets to be built over 10 years to 2027.

By November, Alstom’s Lapa factory in Brazil had produced the first bodyshell for the 600 X’Trapolis Mega Commuter electric multiple-units ordered by Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa.

The stainless steel bodyshell is based on a design supplied to São Paulo, and was completed just 7 months after financial close of the €4 billion contract between PRASA and the Gibela joint venture of Alstom (61 per cent), New Africa Rail (9 per cent) and Ubumbano Rail (30 per cent) on April 26, 2014.

The initial 20 EMUs are reportedly being built at Lapa, where South African teams are being trained ahead of the opening of a purpose-built plant in Dunnottar, 50 kilometres east of Johannesburg. The first complete unit was scheduled to be shipped to South Africa by the end of 2015, where it was set to undergo an intensive testing programme before entering revenue service by June 2016.

It was also reported that 16 South African railway engineers were almost half-way through an 18-month training programme at Alstom sites in Europe, while Alstom’s Sesto plant in Italy was set to supply the traction motors for the 120 km/h EMUs, with French input to include the 1,067 mm gauge bogies from Le Creusot, cabs from Reichshoffen and other components from Ornans, Tarbes, Villeurbanne and Saint-Ouen.

This project is of course part of the early stages of a railway transformation that PRASA is overseeing, as it works on an enormous overhaul of the rail agency’s fleet and performance, expected to cost R170 billion over the next 10 years, that will include faster and more reliable trains that are clean, efficient and safe.

Among the features PRASA wants to introduce to its trains is air conditioning, wi-fi – and possibly even a free newspaper or coffee with a ticket. Just the kind of small considerations, that can enhance the customer experience and make the journey to work more pleasurable.

It is hoped that by 2020, most of these trains will be produced locally at a factory in Ekurhuleni.

At the first meeting of the Land Transport Advisory Board, set up by the City of Cape Town’s Transport for Cape Town, PRASA outlined its plans, and challenges, for 2016 and beyond.

“It’s the whole package – new depots, signalling and modern train stations,” said Prasa general manager of strategic network planning Hishaam Emeran.

“We need to redevelop and modernise, we can’t keep making changes,” he said.

One of the first early objectives will be to improve the speed and punctuality of trains. Emeran said most of Prasa’s users were “captive”, meaning that rail is their only transport option.

By improving travel time and sorting out the delays in waiting for trains, it was hoped that passengers would once again choose rail because it was the most efficient option.

laptop-on-trainEmeran said Prasa had already designed clock-face, or regular interval, timetables, but that the infrastructure required to accommodate more frequent trains still needed to be introduced.

Prasa’s ambitious rolling stock replacement project is going to take in the region of 20 years to complete, at an estimated cost of R125 billion. The fleet requirement is about 7,224 new coaches.

Emeran said the first of the new coaches, expected to arrive by 2016, would have a higher capacity with just over 1,300 passengers per 6-car train. The Metro Express coaches will have 1,186 passengers for ever 6-car train.

There is of course great interest in the progress of PRASA’s plans and it has been reported that the City of Cape Town has included Prasa’s forward-thinking proposals for the transformation of its rail network by 2050 in its Integrated Transport Development Plan of 2032.

The plans include improved integration between rail and other modes of public transport and a review of its rail corridors. Cape Town’s Blue Downs Rail corridor is one of the immediate development priorities.

Prasa has identified 135 stations nationally for upgrades. Turnstiles will be replaced with speed gates, and the stations will use electronic display boards and provide commercial opportunities.

With that in mind, in January came the news that PRASA had appointed Arup SA to develop master plans for the potential redevelopment of land around its major stations in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town. The ambition is to support regeneration by creating transport hubs with retail, office, social, health and leisure facilities.

‘The idea is to integrate the station’s activities with those of the city – to draw in pedestrians, taxi commuters, long-distance bus passengers and commuters – and create a transport hub, not just a railway station’, according to Nico Venter, leader of Integrated Urbanism at Arup SA. ‘From this, urban regeneration can flow outwards into the city and unlock development.’

PRASA’s plans are being put into motion now but it should be remembered that this is very much a work in progress and the full benefits of a modernised rail system will not be felt for years to come, although the investment and concept remains hugely exciting.