Cape Town - “If it can be done for Europe, it can be done for Africa.”
This has always been the ambition of engineer Dr Daniel Mtimkulu, and on Monday it was realised at the unveiling of the first new locally designed locomotive at Cape Town Station.
The Afro 4000 may have been manufactured in Spain, but it was designed by 34-year-old Mtimkulu and his star team of engineers in collaboration with Stellenbosch University students.
The diesel locomotive is the first of its kind in Africa, and the first new passenger locomotive to be commissioned in South Africa since 1958.
The engine coach, fresh off the ship from Spain, is the first of 70 units set to help modernise the ageing fleet in a R46 million procurement deal.
It was a proud day for Mtimkulu, who grew up in Estcourt, KwaZulu-Natal.
“My grandfather gave me this desire to be an engineer. I started with fixing bicycles, geysers and radios. That desire to design – that’s what he instilled in me.”
Mtimkulu did three years of engineering studies at the University of the Witwatersrand before being awarded a scholarship to study in Germany.
After six years studying and working there, he was offered citizenship – but refused, and returned home to work for the Passenger Rail Association of SA (Prasa), where he is now head of engineering services.
It was Mtimkulu’s job to negotiate with the European manufacturers until they accepted the specifications he drew up – made to operate efficiently with minimal maintenance and wastage in South African terrain and climate.
“For me, it’s humbling to see a design with a unique African flavour.”
Many of Mtimkulu’s design innovations will continue to be used when a new train manufacturing plant in Gauteng is completed in the future.
Prasa chief executive Mosenngwa Mofi said the new locomotives would make a huge difference to a service crippled by past disinvestment and falling into disrepair.
“This is the realisation of a long-standing dream; a dream that will change the travel experience of South Africans forever.”
The locomotives are mostly destined for long-distance passenger and freight rail between Cape Town and Joburg, but local services will feel the positive spin-off.
New chairman of the Prasa board, Dr Popo Molefe, said they would inject life into the system.
“We are trying to keep alive a system that is terminally ill in the intensive care ward. You fix it today, tomorrow it breaks. That’s why commuters get frustrated and burn their own assets.”