“Delayed” and “canceled,” two words that infuriate and frustrate train commuters on platforms all over the world. South Africa is no exception to this, as these words regularly appear on the signal boards of the state-owned service, but that could be about to change as major investments aim to modernize the rail network.
Gibela, a joint French-South African company, has won a $3.3 billion contract to replace part of the aging metro fleet run by the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA). It’s tasked with building 600 modern commuter trains — and it has just 10 years to do it.
The company says its new 78-hectare train production facility outside Johannesburg is the biggest in Africa. It cost nearly 2 billion rand ($133 million) to build and has the capacity to produce 62 six-car trains a year at peak production — one of the fastest production rates in the world.
“The rail industry in South Africa is challenged,” explained Hector Danisa, CEO of Gibela. “As the community and the society has grown, the rail industry hasn’t caught up.”
“The passenger rail in Africa is in a dire situation. It’s in crisis,” said Zukie Vuka, organizer of social media campaign #fixourtrains. “Trains are overcrowded, trains get canceled all the time, trains get delayed.”
Gibela has the capacity to manufatcure two cars daily which amounts to one and a half trains a week.
According to state-owned PRASA, almost a third of its commuter trains were delayed in 2017/18 and 13% of scheduled trains were canceled. But despite the problems, there were 269 million paying passenger trips and South Africa’s 2.3 million rail commuters are expected to double within the next 20 years, according to Gibela.
“It was clearly recognized by the government of South Africa that they need to reinvest in rail,” said Danisa.
The South African government has announced plans to spend almost $60 billion by 2027 on rail infrastructure in an effort to boost domestic and regional trade, and PRASA will also upgrade rail tracks, stations and depots, says Danisa.
“Trains are supposed to be efficient, supposed to be effective. It’s supposed to be the fastest transport mode that carries the most people and it’s supposed to contribute to the economy,” said Vuka. “If the train is not working, a lot of people that are not able to afford a different transport mode are not able to get to work on time, which results in them being fired.”
Gibela is 61% owned by Alstom SA (ALSMY), a French transport company, with the remainder owned by South African companies Ubumbano Rail and New Africa Rail. It manufactures two cars daily which amounts to one and a half trains a week. Each car is 21.5m long and contains 100km of cabling.
“It’s a product that respects South Africans,” said Danisa. “It’s comfortable, air-conditioned, better lighting, better safety features.”
Gibela says that trains are built with 90% recyclable components, as well as 145 tons of locally produced lightweight stainless steel, to reduce fuel consumption.
The company says it promotes black economic empowerment, and of more than 900 employees, 94% are black South Africans and 46% are women. It also prioritizes South African suppliers and is contracted to use 65% local materials.
“If you procure trains and you don’t stipulate as a condition to make local content trains, you buy trains offshore … and they have hardly any local content,” said Danisa. “It basically erodes local content and the skills die with it.”
Gibela hopes to empower South Africans and increase local manufacturing.
In the future, Gibela hopes to produce trains for the rest of the world.
“The industry must be set up, not only to supply us, but to supply the world from here,” said Danisa. “This hub, South Africa, is going to be the rail hub of other African countries.”
“I feel like we commuters and people of South Africa should be getting more,” said Vuka.