A total of 600 modern commuter trains are to be introduced to the South African rail network over the next 10 years to ferry its 2.3 million passengers. The X’Trapolis MEGA can ferry 1 200 passengers in its six cars, and travel at speeds of up to 120km/h . Picture: Supplied
Every morning and afternoon, commuter trains leave stations around South Africa to take workers to their places of employment or bring them home.

But in most cases, these trips are nothing less than stressful. Trains operated by the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) subsidiary, Metrorail, are not in good condition. Introduced to the country in 1976 and subsequently refurbished to keep them moving, many are past their shelf life. The consequences are trains that keep breaking down, poor signalling and old station infrastructure.

It is not uncommon to see trains on our urban lines packed to the rafters, with commuters hanging out of doors and windows, and even some daredevils risking their lives to ride on top. Frustrated commuters have at times taken to torching trains, angry at constantly arriving at their workplaces late because of delays. While this has to be condemned in the strongest of terms, what cannot be denied is that the Metrorail network is crumbling.

India has the largest passenger rail system in the world with 23 million passengers every day. According to information supplied by that country’s Ministry of Railways, the Indian railways were hit by 78 derailments in 2016/17, with 193 people dead, the most in 10 years.

Although the number of accidents has fallen over the past 10 years, from 194 in 2007/08 to 104 in 2016/17, derailments have risen, an indication that train passengers are increasingly at peril.

In the first six months of 2017, 29 train accidents were reported, of which 20 were due to derailments, killing 39 people and injuring 54. Over the past decade to 2016/17, 1394 train accidents were reported in India; 51% or 708 were due to derailments in which 458 people were killed.

Although we have had our share of derailments, it has not been anywhere near this magnitude. That is why the decision by the South African government to invest more than R100 billion in new rolling stock, modern signal and ticketing systems, improved railway lines and infrastructure is crucial in making sure that within the next 10 to 20 years, our system does not reach the levels of the railway network in India.

The new trains that South Africa is introducing are something to behold. They boast air-conditioning, wi-fi internet access, CCTV cameras, seating grips, overhead luggage racks and ergonomic toilets. These state-of-the-art commuter trains will be manufactured at a massive plant in Dunnottar, east of Johannesburg.

The X’Trapolis MEGA is distinguishable by its modern exterior look and fresh interior design. It can ferry 1 200 passengers in its six cars, each measuring 21.5m in length. The train will travel at speeds of 120km/h and its features include an anti-crash system designed to protect passengers and the driver in a collision.

The new trains are part of a major rail infrastructure overhaul spearheaded by Prasa which has awarded the contract to Gibela - a consortium that brings together French rail engineering firm Alstom, Umbambano Rail and New Africa Rail. A total of 600 modern commuter trains are to be introduced to the South African Metrorail network over the next 10 years to ferry its 2.3 million passengers.

It is therefore astonishing to understand why the City of Cape Town now wants to assume the role of operator of trains in the City. After all the hard work of years of planning and budgeting, it feels it is now in a position to manage these railway lines. 

City municipalities have a major role in providing the most basic of services to poor communities; the City of Cape Town is struggling to meet these demands in communities such as Langa, Hanover Park, Khayelitsha and Manenberg, yet it sees fit to demand control over Metrorail. How it will fund these operations is perplexing, yet when the poor demand basic services, the City cries bankruptcy. It would do well to focus on its core services of housing, water, sewerage, primary health care, etc.

Read more: City of Cape Town seeks to take helm at Metrorail

Since its launch at the end of July 2014, Gibela has overseen the manufacture of the first 20 trains at an Alstom plant in Brazil, using South African materials and involving South Africans. Of the 20 trains commissioned, 17 are already in commercial service and have clocked up more than 180 000km.

About 820 South Africans have secured fixed-term employment during the construction of Gibela’s R1bn South African manufacturing facility and associated training centre at Dunnottar, which is now more than 50% complete.

The development of the facility will have a major impact on the economy of Ekurhuleni. The municipality is excited about the plant, which it expects to attract future space demand around it such as retail, housing and other industries. About 217ha of land have been set aside for Dunnottar Extension 8, a new housing development that is linked directly to the factory. It is expected that the R51bn rolling stock contract will create 1500 direct jobs and more than 30000 indirect jobs during the construction period alone.

More than 200 engineers and technicians - including 80 women - have been trained and deployed as full-time Gibela employees; 50 skilled and semi-skilled artisans and technicians have been recruited, and 65 apprentices selected to begin their apprenticeships at the new training centre.

Bursaries have been awarded to 250 South African students for study in rail-related fields at South African tertiary institutions.

To meet its demanding local content requirement, Gibela has brought on board 54 South African suppliers to supply materials, parts and services. In the process, more than 4700 jobs are being supported by the company’s activities.

The first South African-built train is scheduled to roll off the production line towards the end of next year, with an average of 62 trains a year to follow over the next 10 years. A contract between Gibela and Prasa for service and maintenance of the trains will run concurrently for 19 years.

“(These are) just some of the numbers that indicate what has been achieved in just three years,” said Gibela CEO Thierry Darthout.

“We have laid a very strong foundation and are well placed to deliver on our targets.”

Speaking at the unveiling of the first 20 trains by Prasa in May, President Jacob Zuma said: “This project is part of a bigger plan by Prasa to roll out the train system of the future to modernise and improve train passenger experience in South Africa. It is a worthwhile investment that will improve infrastructure for our people. The handing over of the new trains means that the days of an unsafe and uncomfortable rail service are soon to be a thing of the past.”

It is heartening to know that South Africa is a country that plans ahead when it comes to public transport. Introducing new commuter trains to the network will benefit mostly the working class and students as these, alongside taxis, are the preferred mode of transport for this group.

* Jessie Duarte is the deputy secretary-general of the ANC.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.