Getting SA’s trains back on track

22 October 2013

Transport is under scrutiny for the right reasons-because of its importance to the mobility of people and the economy. Recently it was under scrutiny for the wrong reasons, due to horrific accidents on our roads and other unfortunate circumstances.

Last year President Jacob Zuma, as part of a monitoring and evaluation visit, joined the morning Gauteng commuter rush to experience the public transport system personally.

He heard first-hand the concerns and challenges commuters experienced. Foremost was the unreliability of the trains, which the President was informed, at times, simply stopped in the middle of nowhere for long period.

Speaking to reporters later that morning, President Zuma said: “Workers are struggling to get to work, that is not good for the economy… I am more convinced now that we need faster and more secure trains.”

To improve passenger rail services the government has embarked on one of the world’s biggest rail projects to overhaul passenger trains. The refurbishment is part of the country’s huge R4.3 trillion infrastructure investment programme, which the President Zuma himself drives through the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission.

The deal to acquire new passenger trains from French company Alstom was announced last week during the South Africa-France Business Forum held on the sidelines of last week’s State visit by French President Francois Hollande.

The contract is worth R51 billion, the biggest infrastructure contract to be awarded in South Africa, for 600 trains and 3 600 wagons over a 10-year period from 2015 to 2025. Rail commuters can in future expect state-of-the-art trains equipped with air conditioning, ergonomic seats, real-time on-board information and Wi-Fi access.

Moreover, the efficiency of services will improve as each train can carry more than 1 300 passengers and travel at a top speed of 160 km/h. This investment will restore our passenger train services to the highest level of safety and reliability. It will not only improve the lives of commuters, but encourage the use of public transport and enhance the country’s reputation as a great place to live, work and invest.

Trains are one of South Africa’s main modes of transport, carrying more than two million commuters a day. However, it’s ageing infrastructure, insufficient and outdated locomotives and the relatively low running speed have led to an unreliable system.

These problems did not simply develop over the last 19 years as some would have us believe. In fact the rail sector was dealt a serious blow in the late 1980s when the apartheid state faced a financial crisis as a result of its defence budget and capital spending cut.

New rail investment was slashed as expenditure on fixed assets fell from R1.4 billion in 1986 to R699 million in 1988. The lack of investment resulted in a steady deterioration in passenger rail services while freight rail lost market share to road transport.

The democratic government elected in 1994 inherited these and other backlogs as well as a huge debt burden. In the past two decades, tight post-apartheid budgets focussed mostly on the provision of basic services to the majority of the people, who had not received them at all under Apartheid.

The government has placed an unprecedented investment in the National Infrastructure Plan which builds key infrastructure to improve the quality of life while unlocking economic and job opportunities.
Over the next decade, the government has prioritised the investment in rail infrastructure and implement a number of interventions to make it the backbone of our passenger transport system.

This is part of our Public Transport Strategy that moves the country towards a high- quality Integrated Rapid Transport Network, which includes taxi, buses and trains at its heart. The (Durban) Bridge City Station and Rail Link Project, which President Zuma opened over the weekend in eThekwini, KwaZulu-Natal, is an example of the network we want to establish.

This project will serve 40 000 commuters a day and provide them with a fully integrated transport system. It will conveniently connect rail passengers to other modes of public transport. The new 3.2 kilometre rail line and terminal station links the communities of Phoenix, Inanda, Ntuzuma and KwaMashu, an area housing more than 800 000 people. In keeping with our job creation plans, the project has already provided 27 500 jobs during construction.

The revitalisation of our passenger rail travel will run parallel with our drive to shift the transport of freight from road to rail. Transnet will invest R205-billion in its rail infrastructure, making its freight rail division the fifth-largest in the world. Through these investments it intends to increase freight rail volumes from about 200-million tons to 350-million tons by 2019.

The acquisition of the new passenger trains is the first phase in our R123-billion project to revamp our rail network system. It includes the building of 7 224 commuter trains for Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, the Western Cape and Eastern Cape.

The train renewal programme is also a catalyst for job creation and skills development. South Africa will over the longer term develop the facilities and capabilities to design and build trains for export.
Moreover, as part of our agreement with train manufacturer Alstom the majority of the parts will be sourced in South Africa. A factory will be built in Ekurhuleni early next year to produce the required parts. It will also house an engineering centre and a training facility.  

The project will create over 1 500 direct jobs in the factory and 33 000 indirect jobs over the first 10 years. The days of unreliable trains that stop in the middle of nowhere leaving commuters frustrated and late will soon be something of the past. Our rail investments guarantee that the lives of commuters will be changed for the better as they arrive at work and back home to their families safely and on time.
These trains will provide a viable option to our already under strain road infrastructure.

They will hopefully reduce the accidents and loss of lives on our roads. This investment is an effort by the government to improve people’s mobility and that of the economy. The mobility of the economy will encourage investment and create much needed jobs.

Phumla Williams is Acting CEO of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS)