Everything will be all right in the end?
The end, it would seem, is always nigh as doomsday predictions form part of humanity’s history and continue to roll in. However, another year has come and gone without our extinction … but, taking the state of Africa’s rail industry into account, you might think that Armageddon has passed? On the other hand, 2014 was filled with some exciting rail developments that hold massive promise – are these more guesses or a matter of fact?
In her piece: Ten Failed Doomsday Predictions, Rachel Cole, research editor of Encyclopædia Britannica, states it best: “Religious leaders, scientists, and even a hen (or so it seemed) have been making predictions for the end of the world almost as long as the world has been around. They’ve predicted the destruction of the world through floods, fires, and comets – luckily for us, none of it has come to pass.”
Prophesising poultry? Yip, you read right – Cole tells the story of the clairvoyant hen of Leeds: “In 1806, a domesticated hen in Leeds, England, appeared to lay eggs inscribed with the message ‘Christ is coming’,” she reports. “Great numbers of people reportedly visited the hen and began to despair of the coming Judgment Day. It was soon discovered, however, that the eggs were not in fact prophetic messages but the work of their owner, who had been writing on the eggs in corrosive ink and reinserting them into the poor hen’s body.”
However, no one has to torture a poor hen to know that our country and continent’s rail infrastructure is in a state of disrepair …
“South Africa’s biggest challenge is the old infrastructure that is currently available,” says Mandla Mlangeni, CEO of the cost engineering and construction economist consultancy firm MMQS. “In the rest of the continent, it is either nonexistent or the capacity is simply not available,” he points out. “That is one of the biggest challenges that the rail infrastructure must overcome.”
It would seem that government is responding to this plight … In February, in his budget speech, the South African minister of finance highlighted the fact that the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) will spend R16,3 billion on upgrading Metrorail coaches, R1,1 billion to modernise 140 stations and R5,5 billion to buy locomotives – over the three-year medium-term expenditure framework.
An important aspect with such projects is the need to control resources – a valuable yet often understated function. “That is where we come in, in terms of project management and cost management – to assist guys like Prasa to overcome the budget management hurdles,” Mlangeni points out. “Overruns usually come in on planning and when the project finishes – so we ensure that the budget and timeline is accurately estimated in the initial scoping of the project.”
Another development that made the headlines popped up in April when Prasa and Gibela Rail Transportation (a joint venture led by Alstom and co-owned by local shareholders, Ubumbano Rail and New Africa Rail) concluded a commercial contract signed on October 14, 2013, for the supply of 600 commuter trains (3 600 coaches) over the next ten years.
The contract, with an overall value of €4 billion (around R55 billion), includes the construction of a local manufacturing facility in Dunnottar, 50 km east of Johannesburg. The first 20 units will be manufactured at the Alstom Lapa plant, in Brazil, with the initial trains scheduled to arrive in the fourth quarter of next year. In addition, Gibela will provide technical support and supply spare parts over an 18-year period.
Alstom adds that this project is one of the biggest in rail transport worldwide and is the largest contract ever signed in its history. Lucky Montana, Prasa group CEO, adds: “We are proud of successfully conducting one of the biggest railway procurement processes in the world.”
He continues: “Thanks to this contract, the old generation will soon be replaced by over 3 000 new Metrorail coaches, specifically designed for South Africa, with high standards of safety, reliability and comfort. This will substantially change the quality of passenger service and will improve the daily journeys of more than two million South African people.”
As for the rest of Africa, renting might be a plausible option … Zithulele Gumede, marketing manager of the DCD Rail cluster (part of the manufacturing and engineering company DCD Group), explains: “Although the leasing of rolling stock in Africa is not common, a few South African rail firms are promoting this model to combat underinvestment in locomotives and wagons.”
He adds: “A lack of funding has led to a downturn in rolling stock fleets on the continent. It is believed that a leasing model will offer greater flexibility and stimulate the sector.” This is in line with international trends, which are moving away from outright purchase of rolling stock to leasing. “Africa is still lagging in this regard,” says Gumede.
According to Gumede, the current drive to get parastatals to lease rolling stock offers them a more cost-effective means of transportation than road, or purchasing locomotives and wagons themselves. It also provides them with an easier means for the transportation of goods.
“The concept of leasing rolling stock is in its infancy in Africa, so it is understandable that there is a degree of scepticism. Some of this could be as a result of a lack of understanding of the concept and residual risk of the leasing option,” he points out.
“For the leasing companies, the lack of interoperability of rolling stock between different countries increases the residual risk, so standardisation is important. Further education of the industry needs to take place in order to promote this alternative model.”
Gumede adds that there is room for the development of rail infrastructure in Africa, where the transportation of goods is a difficult and costly affair. “There are many opportunities for rail within the mining industry in Africa. Commodities have to be transported from mines to ports, but there is a lack of rail infrastructure in many African countries. These commodities therefore have to be transported via roads, which is not cost efficient.”
Things might change, however, as various players within the rail industry are uniting to tackle both our country and continent’s problems – but we can’t say if it will be hit or miss …
Perhaps the fictional character Sonny, hotel manager of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (featured in a 2012 British comedy-drama film of the same name and based on the 2004 novel These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach), is right?
“Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it is not yet the end” …