PRASA'S TRAIN MANUFACTURING PLANT PRAISED – DELAYS EXPECTED THOUGHDate: 2018-10-26
On Thursday, South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, opened a multibillion-rand train manufacturing plant in near Nigel on the East Rand of Johannesburg but, although the plant will create jobs, there are speedbumps which could delay production.
Praised by President Ramaphosa as a benefit to South Africa's economy, there are still concerns that it will be some time before the trains are operational.
Attention has been brought to a variety of issues, including the height of the train station's platforms and that the signalling system countrywide requires maintenance and updating before the new trains can run.
Set up by the Gibela Consortium, authorities have said the plant should deliver two new rolling stock by as soon as December 2018, with nine more by March 2019. An estimated 56 trains will be manufactured by the end of 2020.
At Thursday's launch, Ramaphosa said, "We will rely on passenger rail to carry millions of South Africans. Our trains transport 2.5 million people every day and will rise to five million people every day, therefore a facility like this is important.
"Therefore it is essential to ensure passenger rail service is safe and affordable."
Transport Minister, Blade Nzimande, said that the plant is a "historic, state-of-the-art, innovative facility" and explained that South Africa had been chosen by the African Union to produce trains for the whole of Africa.
Ramaphosa responded, "That is a fantastic achievement."
It has been reported, though, that even if the manufacture of the trains goes according to plan, they can't be operated until the height of commuter station platforms correspond to the train doors. This means that significant remodellings to stations on the commuter lines will have to be performed.
Not only that, but the dispute between the Rail Safety Regulator (RSR) and the Passenger Rail Authority of South Africa (Prasa) over the alleged collapse of the signalling system will have to be concluded too.
Prasa's strategic asset development group executive, Piet Sebola, told Engineering News in a January interview that "the new trains would bring some much-needed relief in the Western Cape" where capacity is low.
According to Metrorail spokesperson, Zino Mihi, there are only 42 reliable train sets in the Western Cape, who require at least 88 operational sets to accommodate the daily passengers safely. One major contribution to this deficit is vandalism and arson that the province suffers to its trains.
Sebola said the country's signalling system was undergoing a multibillion-rand upgrade but that Prasa had not been able to work at the pace it had hoped to rectify the issue of the platforms being to low.
"We can't work at the pace we want to, as we have to shut down the station completely and, in some cases, the entire rail corridor too. It seems almost impossible to find a solution that doesn't inconvenience our customers.
"Our customers are insisting that we are the only transport service they can afford. However, any closure of a service to undertake these works impacts them negatively in the short run, but certainly has greater benefit in the long run.
"The project has also proved to be quite challenging, technically speaking, as lifting the platform means a complete reconfiguration of the station," he said.
Prasa has had its fair share of controversy over the past few years. Back in 2015, they made headlines when it was discovered that thirteen new trains they had imported were too tall for their assigned routes. Just two years later, after it was discovered that the deal was rigged, Johannesburg's South Gauteng High Court set the tender aside.
Then, to compound the pressure on Prasa, the rail agency had to approach the courts to prevent the RSR from to suspending Prasa's safety permit earlier this year. If they were unsuccessful, many commuters would have been stranded as it would have caused a nationwide shut down of train services.
Most recently, in October this year, Parliament's Portfolio Committee on Transport interrogated Prasa about its "apparent lack of progress" in fixing its safety issues.
Perhaps this new plant will bring with it a new lease on life at Prasa.