PRASA: Building a legacy for public transport

The task of upgrading South Africa’s antiquated railways is no small matter and will take time and great expense.

At the time of writing, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (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.

shutterstock_92558902In 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.

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.

Progress has continued at a rapid rate and in November of this year, news came through that the first passenger train acquired under the R51 billion PRASA contract has arrived at Richards Bay, heightening the need for the agency to complete critical infrastructure needed for its commuter train modernisation plans.

The train, one of 20 being made by French transport group Alstom in Brazil, does not currently have a depot in which it can be parked and serviced, nor a track on which it can be tested.

Gibela, which is 61 per cent owned by Alstom and is the special-purpose company created to oversee the manufacture and maintenance of the 600 new trains, confirmed that the first train had arrived.

“Gibela confirms that the first train, a test train made up of six cars, has landed on South African shores and is currently being prepared for on-land transportation,” said company spokeswoman Pamella Radebe.

“An announcement will be made shortly to shed further light about this milestone, the next steps as well as general progress on the rolling stock project.”

Braamfontein was initially earmarked as the priority depot where the trains would be tested, this is one of 5 depots involved in the agency’s R5 billion depot modernisation programme.

Earlier this spring, PRASA confirmed that it had taken control of its brand new Gauteng integrated control centre in Kaalfontein near Johannesburg, with the official handing over taking place in mid-October.

The Gauteng Nerve Centre building covers an area of 3,400 square metresand has capacity to monitor up to 600 trains per day carrying more than 500,000 passengers. The GNC has been built by lead contractor Siemens, assisted by local design consultancy Mehleketo. The main control room contains a video wall designed to resemble the retina of a human eye, 2 m high and 52 m long, which monitors train movements and traction power supplies in real time. Signallers are accommodated at 30 multi-screen workstations, each with a communications module combining telephone, trunked radio and GSM-R access. The GNC also includes conference and incident management facilities, plus a staff gym, canteen and roof garden.

The GNC is also designed to permit the centralised management of passenger information across PRASA’s Gauteng network. Siemens is progressively resignalling the region with electronic interlockings under a series of contracts awarded since 2011 worth €270 million in total. Siemens reports that 3 of 92 stations have so far been resignalled.

News of further progress came through in July of this year, with the announcement that the construction of a rolling stock manufacturing plant at Dunnottar is to begin in the third quarter of this year.

shutterstock_137410439The plant to the southeast of Johannesburg will produce 580 of the 600 X’Trapolis Mega commuter electric multiple-units which Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa ordered from Gibela; the initial 20 are to be supplied from Alstom’s Lapa plant in Brazil, with first scheduled to arrive in South Africa in November.

The R51 billion order signed in October 2013, will in total cover the provision of 3,600 EMU cars in 4 and si6-car sets.


It is anticipated that the vast 85,000 square metre Dunnottar site will be able to produce 62 trainsets per year. Production will run for 10 years, and the site will provide technical support and supply spare parts for 18 years.

Alstom announced that the facility will employ at least 1,500 people, and create ‘thousands’ of indirect jobs among suppliers over the first 10 years, reaching a local-content level of over 65 per cent. 

‘This project is one of the biggest in rail transport worldwide and Alstom through Gibela is proud to be part of it’, said Gian Luca Erbacci, Senior Vice-President for Alstom Transport Middle-East & Africa. ‘This illustrates Alstom’s strategy to strengthen its presence at both global and local levels, thanks to its worldwide industrial footprint and strategic partnerships that enable proximity with its customers.’