SA needs a modern signalling project to solve railway crisis: Analyst

Fikile Mbalula is briefing MPs about transport expenditure

09 July 2019 - 15:13 By IAVAN PIJOOS
Newly elected transport minister Fikile Mbalula has been given a mandate to 'fix' SA's embattled railway system.
Newly elected transport minister Fikile Mbalula has been given a mandate to 'fix' SA's embattled railway system.
Image: 123RF/Anton Opperman

Stranded commuters, lengthy delays, stolen railway tracks, deadly train crashes and burning coaches - this the current state of the country's railway system.

SA's embattled rail service run by state entities Transnet and Prasa has faced a multitude of problems including broken infrastructure, arson and vandalism.  

In recent weeks, the potentially successful Shosholoza Meyl intercity service has left several passengers with a bitter taste in their mouths after trains either broke down or came to a halt.

In the most recent incident, a Shosholoza Meyl train travelling from Johannesburg to Durban derailed on Friday night. The cause of this crash is not yet known. In some of the reported instances, passengers have cited problems relating to stolen infrastructure or maintenance issues.

The Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) echoed these concerns in its 2017-2018 annual report, which warned that the country's long-distance passenger train service was "declining to below acceptable levels".

"Passengers have dropped from 2.8-million in 2009-2010 to 465,647 in 2017-2018, while trains run have dropped from 6,604 in 2009-2010 to 1,777 in 2017-2018," according to the report.

"Both trains run and passenger patronage have dropped drastically at a rate indicative of a service that has totally collapsed," Prasa stated.

Public transport analyst Paul Browning told TimesLIVE on Tuesday that all electrified lines, whether commuter lines or long-distance lines, are under severe pressure due to cable theft and stolen railway points.  

Browning said a short-term solution was the launch of the railway enforcement unit, a project funded by Prasa, in October last year. About 100 officers were deployed to ensure the safety of trains in Cape Town.

"It is a good idea and it is easy enough to find a bit of money for the few months, but then the question is how does it go on, how is it extended." However, "that would seem to be the only short-term solution", he said.

Browning said a longer-term solution could be to introduce a modern signalling system project.

The railway safety regulator (RSR) found in a preliminary investigation after a Prasa train and a Transnet tamping machine crashed at the Eerste Fabrieke station recently, that the signalling system between two stations in Pretoria was broken for about two years and had contributed to the crash.

About 64 commuters and two crew members were injured in the crash.

In another safety report, the RSR raised communication between train control officers and train drivers as a matter of concern and a factor in collisions.

While the report did not specify in how many incidents miscommunication played a role, Business Day reported that the 2017-2018 financial year saw more than 4,400 "operational occurrences", which include collisions, electrocution, level crossing incidents and fires.

Browning said in most cases, cable theft affects the signalling system and when the signal goes down, trains come to a stop and then a manual signalling is implemented.

"What about having a new modern form of signalling which doesn't have cables?

"One would feel that in this day and age there must be technological advances somewhere in the world where they don't have our problems," he said.

The country could also look at an alternative system, such as the moving block, which uses modern technology, said Browning.

According to Energy Efficiency Technology for Railways website, on a moving block-equipped railway, the line is usually divided into areas or regions, each under the control of a computer and each with its own radio transmission system.  

Each train transmits its identity, location, direction and speed to the area computer, which makes the necessary calculations for safe train separation and transmits this to the following train.

It further reported that the radio link between each train and the area computer is continuous, so the computer knows the location of all the trains in its area all the time.

During President Cyril Ramaphosa's state of the nation address in June, he gave newly elected transport minister Fikile Mbalula a mandate to "fix" the railway system.

"We must improve the affordability, safety and integration of commuter transport for low-income households.

"We also want a SA where we stretch our capacities to the fullest as we advance along the superhighway of progress. We want a SA that has prioritised its rail networks and is producing high-speed trains connecting our megacities and the remotest areas of our country," Ramaphosa said.

Mbalula is on Tuesday presenting his department's budget vote or spending and policy priorities for the 2019-2020 financial year in parliament.

We want a SA that has prioritised its rail networks and is producing high-speed trains connecting our megacities and the remotest areas of our country
President Cyril Ramaphosa

Commenting on speculation that some of the national transport budget could be diverted from rail to road infrastructure, railway engineer and analyst Dr Willem Sprong said Prasa required all the money it could get to "sort out their technical issues".

"If they (government) take away the little that they still have, they are seriously going to run into capacity problems," said Sprong, technical director for railway engineering at Gibb Engineering.

"Energy wise, it is six times more expensive to transport your cargo via the roads... To maintain a road is also much more expensive than to maintain a rail," he said.

"We need the political will to force the freight to be rather transported on the railway line and we need to make sure that the capacity of our railway lines are kept up to standard.

"We must maintain our capacity on our railway lines so that we are able to cope with the increase in freight should it move from road to rail."

In a report by the African Development Bank, it is stated that the current condition of existing railways infrastructure and rolling stock is poor in many African countries. "This shortfall has undermined the potential of the rail systems to play a strong contributing role in economic development," the report reads.

There is hope that the money can be found to rejuvenate SA's rail system.

At the Africa Rail conference in June, Mbalula said over three years, his department would be investing about R38bn in new train sets, signalling, depots, per way and station modernisation.

"Railway safety remains a critical element of any railway operation. Our railway safety model is coming of age and has proven to be robust and an important driver of efficiency in operations," he said.

With the minister's focus so far being on the Metrorail system, within cities, it is unclear at this stage whether he will also review investment in the long-distance rail service.

The Financial Mail reported last year that Transnet has been engaged in a seven-year capital investment plan of R229.2bn. At the 2018 Investing in Africa Mining Indaba, the magazine reported, a revitalisation of SA's rail network was suggested as being key to a turnaround in mining investment.

Anglo American deputy chair Norman Mbazima said cost-effective and efficient freight logistics are imperative for inland iron ore, coal and manganese miners to be competitive. He called for greater investment in both rail and port infrastructure.