By Ian Armitage
The priority for passenger rail in South Africa today is securing new rolling stock for commuter rail operator Metrorail and long-distance passenger carrier Shosholoza Meyl.
Both are Prasa companies.
The business plan for the R97 billion, 18-year project to recapitalise Prasa's rolling stock fleet has approved by Intergovernmental Steering Committee, Prasa Group EXCO and Board.
According to Prasa spokeswoman Nana Zenani, Cabinet has given approval for the investment and the funding proposal for the programme has submitted to the National Treasury.
"Proposals for new rolling stock have already gone out, with the first train to hit the tracks in 2014/15," says Zenani.
"Procurement of new rolling stock is vital," she adds.
Prasa is at the forefront of Government efforts to transform public transport in South Africa and to support its socio-economic and transport objectives.
Prasa CEO Lucky Montana says Prasa is "all about mobility and accessibility – the movement of people – and providing access to real opportunities that will help all South Africans to improve their lives".
He tells Africa Outlook: "Prasa is focusing its energy to create a railway service that forms an integral part of the renewal of the transport system to provide effective and efficient public transport to all South Africans.
"Rail services forms the backbone of public transport systems in the major metropolises in South Africa and by acknowledging South Africa's strong railway tradition, Prasa's key objective is to promote rail as the preferred mode of transport for the majority of the people.
"The reality is that the poor condition of the existing rolling stock is the single largest obstacle in the way of Prasa achieving its strategic objectives to be the backbone of public transport by 2015," he adds. "The majority of the current rolling stock is around 33 years and threatens the reliability and safety of rail commuter services throughout South Africa. There is growing consensus that things can no longer be done in the old way. There is a need for rapid change and Prasa must lead the way to modernise the public transport system and transform South Africa's mindset towards using it."
According to Montana, the rejuvenation of the public transport system comes against the backdrop of major changes in the world that present opportunities for the railway industry to play a positive and leading role in global development. "The renaissance to position public transport as the mode of choice for all South Africans will only become a reality through adequate investment in our neglected system," he sys. "The reward for this investment is immeasurable and would change the lives of ordinary South Africans for the better."
The overall investment in rail by Prasa spans several aspects of the commuter rail services including infrastructure and rolling stock.
"The rolling stock underpins everything," Montana stresses. "We have therefore committed to embark on a programme to invest significantly in new rolling stock over the next 20 years."
He pledges to make "the delivery of the first batch of modern trains a reality" by 2015.
A signalling upgrade project it is already rolling out is progressing satisfactorily.
The first tender has already been awarded in Gauteng. KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape province recently been published for bidders.
"The signalling project will see the delivery of a modern, state-of-the-art signalling system for South Africa in key high passenger volume rail corridors with the first phase to be completed over the next five years," Montana says. "This signal technology upgrade started with the appointment of Siemens SA in December 2010, on a contract valued at R1 billion for the re-signalling of key commuter rail corridors and the construction of a single Central Nerve Centre (CNC) for the Gauteng commuter rail network. Construction is already underway in the Lenz-Midway area as part of the first phase. The introduction of a new electronic interlocking signalling system is key to any modern railway operation. The total cost of the signalling for the entire commuter network would be R17 billion over the next 10 years."
Montana notes that only a small percentage of Prasa's current 162 signalling installations have not yet exceeded their design life.
He adds that he is aware Metrorail is not providing the services the commuters of South Africa are currently demanding.
"I have realised we have not met the demands of customers wanting better services."
Montana stresses that Prasa's recent hard-won gains of growing income, upgraded coaches, reduced crime and improved station facilities are all negated by rolling stock's average age of 33 years, already at the end of their design life and with a high likelyhood for general unreliability and the inability to deliver on commuter demands.
"Prasa has 406 train sets, or 4,660 coaches. A third of them are due for retirement in the next three years. "Anything short of a major recapitalisation effort will have grave consequences for the passenger rail system in South Africa."
Montana concludes that the costs of running the current system "are huge".
"It is not sustainable. We have reached the end of the design life of a 40-year-old passenger rail system."
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