FOLLOWING investments in new freight locomotives by Transnet Freight Rail for the first time in a generation and the opening of the new Gautrain commuter network in 2010-11, it might be argued that South Africa is falling back in love with rail transport. The latest show of support was confirmed in April when transport minister Mr S'bu Ndebele initiated the procurement process for a much-needed overhaul of passenger rolling stock and main line infrastructure.

Under the plans announced at Metrorail's Braamfontein depot in Johannesburg on April 19, approximately Rand 123.5bn ($US 15.93bn) will be allocated to procure commuter trains over the next 20 years. Rand 25.9bn will also be spent on infrastructure improvements and the construction of new depots over the next three years to prepare for the introduction of the new emus on a network that Ndebele says has reached the end of its design life.

"The current rolling stock is old, with the majority of the trains built in the 1960s and 1970s, and still being driven by 1950s technology," Ndebele says. "The system, defined in terms of technology, operations, service design and skills, is no longer able to meet passenger expectations and economic demands effectively, and is at a stage where it has to be replaced. We need a revolution in our railway system."

South Africa-Metrorail-002Under the plans, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) will acquire 7224 vehicles, with the government setting a 65% localisation target for successful bidders that would create an estimated 66,000 new and indirect jobs. Two 10-year contracts to produce 360 vehicles per year are envisaged with the submission date for bid proposals set for September 10.

The first phase of this investment plan was initiated in February. During his 2012-13 budget speech, finance minister Mr Pravin Gordhan announced an initial Rand 5bn allocation to Prasa, of which Rand 4bn is reserved for the procurement of new trains, while Rand 1bn will be used to upgrade infrastructure such as signalling, and depots.

Ndebele says rail services continue to play a significant role in the major metropolitan areas, and with a nod to the country's railway history, he says that Prasa's key objective is to promote rail as the preferred mode of transport for the majority by providing a safe, reliable and modern passenger service to all South Africans.

"Our transport policy is about promoting public transport over private car use," Ndebele says. "The policy also seeks to reduce the costs of transport for poor and middle-income households, with the poor still carrying the burden of an inefficient transport system, rooted in the geography of apartheid, where the majority continues to live far from their places of work."

BEE‚Äąpartnership

The winning bidder will be required to work with a black economic empowerment (BEE) partner chosen by Prasa with the BEE partner getting a 26-40% stake in the project.

Prasa CEO Mr Lucky Montana believes this "new and innovative" approach to BEE will address some of the pitfalls experienced in the past, when inappropriate BEE partners with no long-term commitment were chosen for projects, often only because of their political connections.

"We have seen from the history of BEE that you get partners who are not even involved in the project," Montana says. "As soon as the contract is signed, they cash in and go away. We want a long-term partner who will take part in the revitalisation of the local industry over the next 10 years. We are also trying to avoid a situation where you have BEE guys who are well connected and are appointed for this reason, and they bring their own international original-equipment manufacturer."

Improvements to signalling outlined in the plans will complement work initiated by Prasa in 2010, when Siemens was selected as the preferred bidder to resignal key suburban routes. The top priorities were Metrorail's busiest corridors, including Pretoria - Johannesburg - Mabopane - Mamelodi, the Naledi line in Soweto, the KwaMashu - Durban - Umlazi line, and the lines from Cape Town to Khayelitsha, Kraaifontein, and Simon's Town.

However, Prasa's new technical developments are not enough to address all of the network's issues in isolation.

A fundamental problem lies within the culture of the rail agency which has a poor track record of staff discipline and professional conduct. Its similarly poor reliability record has led to arson attacks by angry and frustrated commuters while the long-term problems of free-riders and train-surfing still persist.

The problems were brought into focus in 2011 following two major accidents, both of which were the result of drivers passing signals at danger.

In one instance a driver, who had already been disciplined for exceeding line speed limits and put on probation for 12 months, ignored two red signals and drove at 85km/h in a 30km/h zone. The resulting accident injured 857 passengers and cost Prasa more than Rand 55m following the creation of an accident victims' fund, the payment of medical bills, and the cost of repairs.

Safety standards were subsequently addressed by South Africa's Rail Safety Regulator (RSR) through a new safety guide called the Human Factor Management Standard. The guide was developed with the South African Bureau of Standards and sets minimum requirements for all railway operators and their employees.

Prasa also set out to improve its own performance by adopting a 90-day programme that focused on addressing safety, driver behaviour, train availability and quantity of spare vehicles at depots. Metrorail has similarly instituted a zero-tolerance approach to drivers who do not submit to safety protocols. Serious safety violations such as disobeying speed limits or passing signals at danger are punishable with dismissal. The frequency of random tests for drivers for sobriety and other fitness for duty measures have been increased while compulsory medical checks now take place twice a year.

Step in the right direction

These measures are certainly a step in the right direction but a significant amount of work is ahead to improve standards and reliability of South Africa's mainline network.

The rolling stock procurement programme and associated infrastructure improvements will increase the attractiveness of rail transport, but similar attention to providing a safe environment for passengers is essential.

Road congestion is a major problem around South Africa's largest cities, and while the train is considered the means to relieving these problems, as it has to a certain extent in and around Johannesburg since the introduction of Gautrain, if passengers decide to leave their car at home there must be assurances that they will be able to get to work on time while remaining safe and secure. Without this, the government's apparent faith in rail, backed by a significant financial commitment, will be an opportunity missed.