ASK most South Africans where Dunnottar is and the best you will get is a shrug. Ask a serving or former South African Air Force pilot, however, and you will be directed to a vast, flat field roughly 40km east of Johannesburg where, until the early 1990s, all military pilots did their ab initio training in elderly North American T6 Harvards whose thunderous engines could be heard for miles around.

The roar of those engines is now a distant memory but in late May a new sound came to Dunnottar as the Gibela rail consortium broke ground on its Rand 1bn ($US 63m) plant, where it plans to build 580 six-car EMUs for the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa).

IMG 9901The Rand 51bn deal is, along with Transnet Freight Rail's project to build 1064 new locomotives for its general freight business, the biggest thing to happen in the South African railway industry in recent decades.

Under the terms of the deal, Gibela - majority-owned by Alstom with local black empowerment partners - will supply 600 X'Trapolis EMUs to replace Prasa's creaking rolling stock fleet, much of which dates back to the 1950s.

The first 20 sets are being built in Alstom's plant in Lapa, Brazil, and the first five have already arrived in South Africa for testing on the Prasa network.

"We have more or less completed 50% of the process in Brazil," says Gibela chief executive Mr Marc Granger. Now all eyes are on Dunnottar as work begins on the new factory where the remainder of the trains will be built, but it has not been all plain sailing. While the 78-hectare site looks flat, Granger says "massive quantities" of earth have had to be moved. The site also overlaps a sensitive wetland area which needed protection.

Then there is the grass. The environmental impact study flagged the presence of thousands of grass species which also required protection while the factory is being built. "We have had to take care of these species of grass and put them in a nursery," Granger says.

All going well, the first locally-built trains are due to roll out of the plant in mid-2017, with production then ramping up to 360 vehicles a year. "In three years or so, it should have changed from a rural place with lots of unemployment to a state-of-the-art manufacturing plant which will be good for the economy," Granger says.

The new plant will have a 1.2km test track for dynamic testing of the new trains. The plant will also have a rail connection to the electrified main line between Nigel and Springs.
Gibela plans to employ 1500 people at the plant, with a further 19,500 artisans passing through its training facility in the next decade. Rail-related training will account for 1.75% of the total value of the contract.

Meanwhile, localisation - now compulsory in any South African engineering or infrastructure deal involving the state - will rise from 67% at the start of the project to 75% by year 10. Gibela estimates that local suppliers will have to deliver some 10,000 parts daily to the facility when it is in full production.

The X'Trapolis EMUs will offer a 31% energy saving over Prasa's current trains, with a design life of 40 years.

Once testing on the new trains is complete, Gibela says they could enter service on Prasa's Metrorail commuter lines in October this year. This would be good news for Metrorail which is desperate for new rolling stock to end the current crisis in which timetables are disrupted by daily breakdowns and delays as staff struggle to keep the elderly EMUs in service. The new trains are set to transform Metrorail's services and its image, which cannot come soon enough.