On the right track
There have been some major developments in the local rail industry. We feature some of the recent happenings before looking at international projects where things are being done right.
SAnews.gov.za – the South African government’s news agency, published by the Department of Communications – quotes Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe, in its piece: Infrastructure plan bears fruit: “After decades of under-investment in maintenance and expansion, the country is in the process of revitalising its transport networks to become the transport hub for southern Africa.”
Radebe also says: “Government is spending in the region of R51 billion on new rail rolling stock to renew the passenger fleet as well as R4 billion on new hybrid locomotives. To date, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) has taken delivery of 13 of the 70 new locomotives.”
The news agency adds that, according to Radebe, Transnet Freight Rail is spending a further R50 billion to procure 1 064 locomotives (of which 599 will be electric and 465 diesel), for its general freight business unit by February 2019.
“Tenders have been awarded to different consortia led by General Electric, China North Rail, China South Rail and Bombardier Transportation,” the website points out.
“Minister Radebe says these initiatives place South Africa in the position of having the largest wholesale rail renewal and general overhaul programme in Africa.”
Other media reports, however, differ from this positive picture: “Controversy has refused to die over the Prasa’s deal to procure 70 locomotives from Spanish manufacturer Vossloh Espana, through Swifambo Rail Leasing,” notes BDlive, the digital identity of the national daily newspaper Business Day.
It adds that Prasa seems to have flouted its own procurement policies and contractual stipulations to favour Swifambo – “referred to as ‘the seller’ in contracts seen by Business Day, is a supplier of railway technology, according to its website. But little information is readily available about the company”.
“The latest questions date back to 2013, when opposition parties asked the auditor-general to investigate the deal, citing the high cost of the locomotives,” BDlive points out. “There had also been questions about why Prasa would choose to associate itself with Swifambo as one of its directors was implicated in tender corruption some years before.”
The other controversies include media reports that the locomotives could damage South Africa’s rail infrastructure. These state that “senior railway engineers warned Prasa that they were too high for the local railway lines on long-distance routes for which they were intended,” according to Manny de Freitas, spokesperson on transport matters at the Democratic Alliance.
“However, Prasa has strenuously denied this, going as far as taking journalists aboard a train pulled by a Vossloh locomotive to disprove these claims,” BDlive continues.
“Prasa has so far received 13 of 20 new diesel locomotives, which are undergoing testing and will operate commercially upon approval from the Rail Safety Regulator (RSR). The other 50 locomotives are hybrid, which means they can run on both diesel and electric power.”
While these allegations are making the rounds, other countries are doing more for their commuters. In the United Kingdom (UK) rail passengers are benefiting from new compensation arrangements, which came into effect on July 19, as part of changes to the National Rail Conditions of Carriage (NRCoC).
Under the changes, passengers claiming compensation for delays and disruption will be able to receive their compensation in cash instead of rail vouchers, if they request it.
Different train companies have different arrangements for when passengers are entitled to compensation, but, generally, if a passenger is delayed by more than 30 minutes for any reason they may be entitled to some compensation.
The amount of compensation paid out by operators under the “Delay Repay” scheme, which covers around half of the train companies, increased by £10 million (more than R195 million) between 2013 and 2014.
Referring to the compensation arrangements, David Mapp, commercial director at the Association of Train Operating Companies, says: “Compensation for delays has become increasingly generous and easy to apply for. Today’s changes underline the industry’s commitment to offering passengers an ever better deal, including how they receive compensation.
“The timetable is the rail industry’s commitment to its passengers and we never want people to suffer delays or disruption. Train operators and Network Rail are working hard together to make more trains run on time, but when things do go wrong we want to put it right.”
The Rail Minister, Claire Perry, says: “Passengers have told us that they want better compensation when their trains are delayed, and I am pleased that the industry has responded. This change is a positive first step, but I am working with the industry to ensure more improvements are delivered as soon as possible. This is all part of our plan to give hard-working commuters a better deal and better journeys.”
The benefits didn’t stop there, as train passengers in London can use an iPhone or Apple Watch to pay to travel, from July 14.
Apple’s contactless system, Apple Pay, is now valid for travel anywhere on the London public transport system, including national rail stations and services, where contactless cards are already accepted for pay-as-you-go travel. The new payment system has been developed in collaboration with Transport for London.
Mapp says: “Apple Pay is another welcome and convenient way for people to pay to hop on a train. Many train passengers are already using contactless bank cards and smart cards like Oyster, or buying e-tickets on smartphones.
“Over the next ten years we will see increasing use of the latest technology to transform the way people buy rail travel.”
The UK rail industry is working on a range of initiatives to make it simpler and easier for people to buy and use train tickets, with a gradual move to new types of electronic tickets.
Now wouldn’t it be great if we South Africans could tap our smartphone to ride the country’s trains instead of using these devices to read about the controversies surrounding Prasa …