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The changing face of rail in South Africa

Hadassah Kaplan

The South African government has on many occasions stated that its policy is to make rail a far more significant part of the freight and commuter transport system in the country. There is severe congestion on the road networks and in many areas serious damage has been caused to road infrastructure by heavy trucks, resulting in an ongoing need for repairs and maintenance. Rail is seen to be a cheaper, more accessible and efficient mode of transport.

The control and administration of passenger and freight transport is split: the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) is responsible for short- and long -distance transport of people, whereas Transnet Freight Rail handles freight. PRASA’s current rolling stock fleet is almost 50 years old, prompting major safety concerns about the aging fleet, as well as the railway infrastructure including signalling, cabling and control systems. This has had adverse financial implications for railway users and their insurers.

Both PRASA and Transnet have awarded new supply contracts in an attempt to improve their service, including:

  • the supply of new diesel locomotives for PRASA's long distance passenger service;
  • the supply of 600 coaches for PRASA's urban commuter rail service; and 
  • the supply of 720 new locomotives for Transnet Freight Rail

A spokesperson for the company to whom the PRASA rolling stock contract was awarded spoke of three dimensions to the project delivering modern trains, developing an efficient local industrial plant and supporting South Africa's economic and social development. A one billion rand manufacturing plant is to be built at Dunnottar, Ekurhuleni meeting the criteria of developing an industrial local plant and boosting South Africa's economy. It is here where the majority of the coaches will be built, where onsite maintenance and engineering services will be provided, and a training facility for artisan skills and a centre of excellence for engineering will be operated. The hub is anticipated to be environmentally efficient, employ about 2,700 people and recycle water and power. Bombardier has already set up a factory in Kempton Park, Johannesburg, manufacturing rail propulsion units.

Numerous new projects have also been proposed and discussed, some of which are still in the early stages. These include:

  • the refurbishment of the commuter rail network, including tolling stock and related infrastructure;
  • a substantial expansion of the Gautrain urban high speed commuter network, involving the construction of 18 new stations and 150 kilometres of new railway track; and
  • high-speed passenger rail links between Johannesburg, Durban, Musina and Mafikeng.

At the same time, Transnet recognises the potential for substantial growth and development of rail infrastructure in Africa and the increasing role that rail transport is to play. Transnet is actively seeking markets in Africa to supply locally built locomotives, and is already supplying locomotives to Botswana.

The result of this new development impetus is opportunities for involvement in new projects by numerous industries, including financial services, transport, energy, manufacturing, construction and engineering and legal services, as well as the improvement of rail services in South Africa for commuters and freight logistics.

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