South Africa’s new trains will take the pain out of commuting for millions

City's plan to take over the running of trains from Metrorail is 'pie in the sky', says union. Picture: Jeffrey Abrahams/ANA Pictures

Every morning and afternoon, commuter trains leave stations around South Africa to either take workers to their different places of employment or bring them home to their loved ones. 

But in most cases, these trips are nothing less than stressful. Trains operated by the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (PRASA) subsidiary, Metrorail, are not in a very good condition. Introduced to the country in 1976 and subsequently refurbished to keep them moving, many are simply past their shelf life. The resultant consequences are trains that keep breaking down, poor signalling and old station infrastructure. 

It is not uncommon to see trains on our urban lines packed to the rafters, with commuters hanging out of doors and windows, and even some daredevils risking their lives to ride on top of the trains. Frustrated commuters have at times taken to torching trains, angry at constantly arriving at their workplaces late because of delayed trains. While this has to be condemned in the strongest of terms, what cannot be denied is that the Metrorail network is simply crumbling. 

India has the largest passenger rail system in the world with 23 million passengers every day. According to information supplied by that country’s Ministry of Railways, the Indian railways were hit by 78 derailments in 2016/17 with 193 people dead, the most in ten years.

Although accidents have fallen over the past ten years, from 194 in 2007/08 to 104 in 2016/17, derailments have risen over this period, an indication that trains are increasingly at peril.

The first six months of 2017 reported 29 train accidents, of which 20 were due to derailments, killing 39 people and injuring 54. Over the last decade to 2016/17, 1 394 train accidents were reported in India; 51% or 708 were due to derailments in which 458 people were killed.

Although we have had our share of derailments, it has not been anywhere near this magnitude. That is why the decision by the South African government to invest over R100 billion in new rolling stock, modern signal and ticketing systems, improved railway lines and infrastructure is crucial in making sure that within the next ten to 20 years our system does not reach the levels of the railway network in India. 

The new trains that South Africa is introducing to the network are something to behold.  They boast Air-conditioning, Wi-Fi internet access, CCTV cameras, seating grips, overhead luggage racks and ergonomic toilets. These state-of-art commuter trains will be manufactured at a massive plant in Dunnottar, east of Johannesburg. 

The X’Trapolis MEGA is distinguishable by its modern exterior look and fresh interior design. It can ferry 1 200 passengers in its six cars, each measuring 21.5 metres in length. The train will travel at speeds of 120 km/h and its features include an anti-crash system designed to protect passengers and the driver in case of a collision. 

The new trains are part of a major rail infrastructure overhaul spearheaded by the Passenger Rail Agency (PRASA) which has awarded the contract to Gibela – a consortium that brings together French rail engineering firm Alstom, Umbambano Rail and New Africa Rail. A total of 600 modern commuter trains are to be introduced to the South African Metrorail network over the next ten years to ferry its 2.3 million passengers.

It is therefore astonishing to understand why the City of Cape Town now wants to assume the role of operator of trains in the City of Cape Town, after all the hard work of years of planning and budgeting, the City feels it is now in a position to manage these railway lines. City municipalities have a major role in providing the most basic of services to poor and indigent communities, the City of Cape Town is struggling to meet these demands in communities like Langa, Hanover Park, Khayalitsha, Manenberg, etc, yet it sees it fit to demand control over Metrorail, how it will funds these operations are perplexing, but yet when poor communities demand basic services, the City cries bankruptcy. The City would do well to focus on its core services of housing, water, sewerage, primary healthcare, etc.  

Since its launch at the end of July 2014, Gibela has overseen the manufacture of the first 20 trains at an Alstom plant in Brazil, using South African materials and involving South Africans. Of the 20 trains commissioned, 17 are already in commercial service and have clocked up more than 180 000 kilometres.

Some 820 South Africans have secured fixed-term employment during the construction of Gibela’s R1 billion South African manufacturing facility and associated training centre at Dunnottar in Ekurhuleni, which is now more than 50% completed.

The development of the facility will have a major impact on the economy of Ekurhuleni. The municipality is excited about the plant, which it expects to attract future space demand around it such as retail, housing and other industries. Some 217 hectares of land have been set aside for  Dunnottar Extension 8, a new housing development that is linked directly to the factory. It is expected that the R51 billion rolling stock contract will create 1 500 direct jobs and over 30 000 indirect jobs during the construction period alone. 

More than 200 engineers and technicians – including 80 women – have been trained and deployed as full-time Gibela employees; 50 skilled and semi-skilled artisans and technicians have been recruited, and 65 apprentices selected to begin their apprenticeships at the new training centre.
Bursaries have been awarded to 250 South African students for study in rail-related fields at South African tertiary institutions.

To meet its demanding local content requirement, Gibela has on-boarded 54 South African suppliers to supply materials, parts and services. In the process, more than 4 700 jobs are being supported by the company’s activities.

The first South African-built train is scheduled to roll off the production line towards the end of 2018, with an average of 62 trains a year to follow over the next ten years. A contract between Gibela and PRASA for service and maintenance of the trains will run concurrently for 19 years.

Speaking at the unveiling of the first 20 trains by Prasa in May, President Jacob Zuma said: “This project is part of a bigger plan by PRASA to roll out the train system of the future to modernise and improve train passenger experience in South Africa. It is a worthwhile investment that will improve infrastructure for our people. The handing over of the new trains means that the days of an unsafe and uncomfortable rail service are soon to be a thing of the past.”

It is heartening to know that South Africa is a country that plans ahead when it comes to public transport. Introducing new commuter trains to the network will benefit mostly the working class and students as these, alongside taxis, are the preferred mode of transport for this group.

Jessie Duarte is the Deputy Secretary General of the ANC