The Question of “Tall Trains”

By Lucky Montana

I penned an article about the proposed “Unbundling of ESKOM” and what needs to be done https://uncensoredopinion.co.za/the-decision-to-split-eskom-major-strategic-setback/ A brother by the name of Thomas Oupa Mnisi chose not to read my article (which he is not obliged to) but responded rather cynically by posting on Facebook “Tell us more about the Over Sized trains”. At the beginning, I chose to ignore this. Cynicism is a sickness and a worst form of laziness.

However, after some reflection, I decided to grant him his wish and write something about the “tall trains”. I am proud of the important work that the team and I did during my time at PRASA to modernize South African Passenger Railways.

I have the time and patience to keep repeating what I have said and/or written so many times over the past few years. If this matter was between the two of us, I would not even bother to reply to his post. However, I take into consideration that I have the moral duty to share information/knowledge I gained over the past two decades in the public sector. I do this especially for young people, some of whom may consider pursuing future careers in the rail transportation industry. They are the future of our beloved country.

The question of whether or not the AFR04000 locomotives are “too tall” for the South African rail network will ultimately be resolved by historians, engineers and future generations. When they make such a determination, they will have before them certain facts about these marvellous trains we purchased. What are the facts:

(1) The height of the AFRO4000 locomotives is 4140mm;

(2) the SA National Standard (SANS) developed by the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) provides for electrical lines at a minimum height of 4.5m;

(3) The standard provides for a tolerance limit or gap of 150mm between the train and electrical contact wire;

(4) the standard and practices are elaborated and well-captured in the “Electrical Safety Instruction” signed between Transnet and PRASA in 2012; and

(5) the same standards are detailed in the “Overhead Power Lines for Conditions Prevailing in South Africa” (SAN10280/NRS041 – 1:2008) as well as in Occupational Health and Safety regulations.

A careful study of the standards and also various reports of the Rail Safety Regulator will show that the AFRO4000 does not only meet these standards but far exceeds them.

Other than the noise about “tall trains”, South Africans have been denied valuable information about the features of these modern trains and how they will benefit the country. I wish to highlight a few:

(1) Unlike many of the locomotives operating in the RSA network and in many countries, the AFRO4000 is the most energy-efficient locomotive around. It uses diesel to start up but automatically changes to auxiliary power which it also regenerates during its journey. It’s sister locomotive, the Hybrid, which was to follow the delivery of the AFRO4000, is even far more superior. Sadly, the 50 hybrid locomotives will no longer be delivered to these shores after the contract was cancelled.

In the South Africa of today where energy is a major challenge, energy-efficient systems are key to our future. In an unrelated project and during the first load-shedding in South Africa some years back , I instructed the PRASA Engineering team to commence work on “Energy Regeneration”. This simply means to explore the possibility of deploying modern technologies that will enable PRASA to capture energy that is generated and regenerated during the braking moment of a train. This would be put back as traction energy for PRASA’s rail operations and would significantly reduce the cost of traction energy. We had started to engage Eskom on the possibility of transferring the surplus energy to the national grid.

(2) In terms of emissions, the AFRO4000 complies to the global standards aimed at carbon emissions and creating cleaner environments. The exhaust fumes from the engine are automatically sucked by the turbo and converted to cleaner air. This reduces carbon emissions to almost zero.

(3) The AFRO4000 locomotive comes with modern features like “driver intelligence guide” which enables for dynamic driving. The driver is able to understand and manage the environment conditions around where he/she is driving and the conditions ahead. For example, if a driver goes from Cape Town and Johannesburg, it will provide the driver  with the relevant information for the journey. For example, if a driver takes on a steep hill or on the descend, the locomotive will guide him on the appropriate speed and braking. If the driver moves slower or faster, the locomotive will force him to adjust accordingly. The auto features enables the driver to be involved but will stop immediately if the driver did not follow the requirements. This is important to reduce “operational induced failures” to the detriment of the equipment, other systems and the safety of passengers. This is key to safety and efficient operations as well as energy efficiency.

For example, after 5 hours of driving, there will be a continuous beep sound requiring the driver to identify himself through his identification code. If it is the same driver for over 5 hours, the locomotive will automatically stop. This will force PRASA to manage fatigue among train drivers and ensure safety.

(4) The AFRO4000 was fitted with a “Mission Control” to have real-time information on the performance of the key critical components like turbo, engine and the auxiliary system. This real time system enabled for remote monitoring, which was not depended on the human factor. Unfortunately, PRASA has not rolled-out adequately this system to improve on the performance, especially reliability, and reduce failure of its existing fleet.

(5) During the endurance test of the locomotives, as part of the test phase required by the Rail Safety Regulator, the AFRO400 could pull 52 passenger coaches plus three dead locomotives. With its massive horsepower, the performance of the AFRO4000 is quite extraordinary with 16 cylinders compared to many of the locomotives with 8 to 10 cylinders. I am not referring to four or five locomotives pulling a load but a single AFRO4000 was able to do the job so easily.

(6) For its huge power and capacity, the tonnage for the AFRO4000 is 22,3 tons Axle load, making it a light locomotive compared to locomotives like 7E which is 24; meaning it is quite heavy. The negative impact on the network is significantly reduced with a light locomotive. This is one major factor in the maintenance costs of railway operators.

I am reminded of one progressive initiative by PRASA  to address concerns of the wheel/rail impact. This was part of the work with the University of Stellenbosch. I authorized that some of our wheels be sent to China for detailed analysis so that we could manage the negative impact of wheels on the rails and reduce the costs associated with this.

(7) I am reminded of the words of the retired trade union stalwart, Chris De Vos commenting on the Driver Cab of the AFRO4000 and said the drivers were quite excited that they now have an aeroplane of their own.

(8) The AFRO4000 locomotive has 70% duty cycle i.e.  higher chances of success in a degraded mode or failure of critical components compared to the current old locomotive with 40% duty cycle i.e. high failure rate.

(9) The communication system on the AFRO4000 is the best, with the dual radio system, among others, which enables the train operator to pick up the strongest signal in the network. The dual radio innovation was approved by ICASA. The use of trunk radios and other older systems had created many “death spots” in the rail network limiting effective communication between the train and control centers. This is the biggest issue on the safe movement of trains.

(10) To reduce the failure rate of locomotives through tunnels, the AFRO4000 came with turbo-charger with a boaster, which enables the flow of clean air into the  engine. Many of the old Transnet and PRASA locomotives fail to pass through tunnels requiring the electrification of these tunnels but not the AFRO4000. It passed this tunnels with flying colours. You could check on a YouTube video showing the AFRO4000 emerging with ease from the longest tunnel in the country:  Hex River Tunnel: 14.2 km long.

These are but some of the modern features that define the so-called tall trains. I have dealt with some of the modern and innovative solutions in my Affidavit asking to be admitted as a “Friend of the Court” in the matter between PRASA and Swifambo. unfortunately, my application was not successful. Only a crazy person would not want a modern train system with these modern features aimed at enhancing safety, high performance and reducing operating costs.

Other than modern features of the “tall trains”, the AFRO4000 was critical to transforming the long-distance passenger rail services. Here are some relevant facts:

(1) PRASA’s inter-city or long-distance service, Mainline Passenger Service (MLPS), otherwise known as “Shosholoza a Meyl” constituted 8% of the PRASA business but contributed over R800 million (loss) to the overall bottom line of PRASA. It was important to change this situation.

(2) MLPS was moving over 3 million passengers (pax) during the 1990s but this had dropped to below a million by the end of 2017.

(3) A study conducted by Lufthansa Consulting indicated that MLPS was not getting access to a quality rail network from Transnet but was paying almost three times more for access to a poor network services compared to similar businesses that had access to a better quality network with higher speeds. This means Shosholoza Meyl could not deliver on its on-time performance and comfort to its customers.

(4) As a result of the above factors, MLPS was unable to respond to passenger demands and expectations and therefore could not compete with the long-distance bus and taxi operators on the road side. It was shedding customers at an alarming rate.

The introduction of the AFRO4000 was good for PRASA for the following reasons,

(1) The AFRO4000 would have enabled PRASA to eliminate the huge inefficiencies like changing of locomotives twice or thrice on some of the corridors, thereby increasing travel times for passengers. The AFRO4000 will enable a single journey at relatively higher speeds, which will be a break from the established culture and practice of long stops at key stations after almost 300km of travel for locomotives to be changed.

(2)  The AFRO4000 would enable PRASA to reduce the operational costs associated with the Access and haulage Agreement with Transnet of over R300 million per annum paid for the leasing of locomotives as well as technical support associated with changing of locomotives along the journey.

(3). The huge operational costs associated with transport services like procuring “combi” services to deliver one or two drivers to a station where the old locomotives are to be replaced and bring back the drivers back to where the journey began. This is backward stuff dating back to the introduction of our railways in the last century.

Benefit for the Passengers

For the passengers on the inter-city train, the introduction of the AFR04000 meant reduced travel times: For example, the 12 hour train trip from Jhb – Durban, subject to access and running speeds on the Transnet lines, would be reduced to approximately 8 hours, making it competitive again in relation to cars, taxis and buses when the overall journey times, travel costs  and safety are taken into account.

Regional corridors like PTA – Polokwane – Musina, Jhb – Nelpsruit – Komatipoort, Jhb – Bloemfontein – Kimberley, JHB – Mahikeng stood to benefit significantly from the modernization.

There has been a lot of noise about the AFRO4000 but South Africans had been denied access to the right information.

(1) The biggest lie was that the locomotives are “too tall for the South African rail network”. It has been proven again and again that this assertion is false and could not be sustained any longer. The journalist that broke story and given an award of R200 000 did not even know the SAN Standards and how these affected railways.

(2) The media told us that the “Manuals” and the “Operating Systems” for the locomotives were only in Spanish. This was another big lie that proved to be false. The young black lady that drove the train during the trip where journalist were invited to disprove their own lies, did not speak Spanish. She went to Spain not to learn Spanish but for extensive training on handling this modern monster. The Manuals and Operating System are in English because the AFRO4000 is a uniquely African locomotive created for South African conditions by a design team of Engineers from PRASA, Swifambo and Vossloh.

(3) The media told us that the AFRO4000 cannot fit into the depots or workshop of PRASA. They showed a video of the AFRO4000 struggling to get into one of sheds. This was to prove that the train was “too tall”. Again, lies have short legs. The media did not inform the viewers/readers that PRASA had to build new depots for its new commuter trains and locomotives or upgrade existing ones. The maintenance skills, equipment, facilities and ethos for maintenance of these modern trains required new depots and workshop. They are not the same as the old trains.

(4) The media claimed that “During the tenure of Lucky Montana, PRASA purchased toilet seats for R42 million each”. No one bothered to check if there were infact toilets on the locomotives. It became clear that there was not even toilets on the locomotives, let alone toilet seats. This lie could no longer be sustained and had since disappeared in the public space.

During my testimony in Parliament on 31 January 2018, I challenged my detractors to come and challenge my testimony about the “tall trains”. No one came forward to defend the big lies. They preferred the media where lies could be told with impunity and not Parliament or Commissions where they will be cross-examined on their false assertions.

We were subjected to a lot of ridicule such as “Lucky and his engineer” unable to even measure, hence the “tall trains”. I laught at myself sometime for being so “dom”.

On a more serious note, we had a bold and ambitious plan to change our railways. Everything was well thought out and we had a great team of young black engineers and experienced white engineers to do great things. If you follow closely the facts, one could see that what was unfolding at PRASA was a real revolution. It was not only about the acquisition of new trains and locomotives, modern signals, modern stations or other operating systems, this was about creating the new railway system that could serve our country for the next 50 years or more.

I did not create all of the great things. I brought one thing to our team of  engineers: “Strategy and the Courage to Act”. This will be the title of my book if ever I were to write one in the future.

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