Problems clear but costly trains get partial go-ahead

The roll-out of the controversial Afro 4000 trains in South Africa has been approved by the Railway Safety Regulator‚ with some provisos — and only in provinces where their height can be safely navigated.

The regulator‚ mandated by law to oversee safety of railway transport‚ said in a statement it had conducted tests on the new fleet of diesel locomotives purchased by the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) in a R5 billion deal.

Prasa has received 13 of 70 locomotives for its long-distance Shosholoza Meyl service‚ with commercial operations expected to begin in July next year. However‚ the contract has been mired in controversy and earlier this year‚ it was reported that the locomotives were too tall and would damage overhead rail lines.

Prasa‚ meanwhile‚ is trying to set aside its contract with Swifambo Rail Leasing. It has approached the High Court‚ claiming the contract is unlawful due to findings of “alleged … fraud‚ corruption and gross irregularities”. The findings were made by the auditor-general and the public protector in an August report entitled‚ Derailed. Swifambo procured the locomotives from Spanish manufacturer Vossloh Espaa.

The regulator‚ which criticised Prasa for not following “the required processes during the procurement” prior to buying the trains‚ nevertheless granted conditional approval in its statement issued this week.

Its inspections showed that all the locomotives have already covered significant mileage‚ with Afro 4001 and Afro 4004 having travelled the most at over 12‚000 km each‚ the regulator said.

Its report stated:

- Abrasion marks were found on the roofs of the locomotives‚ indicating that contact or flashover occurred during testing;

- The cabin design is deemed not suitable for the South African operating conditions based on the location of the seats;

- There is no evidence of an existing maintenance contract to support the locomotives during the testing and commissioning process and beyond deployment; and

- Of the 13 locomotives‚ only one is equipped with a radio communication system. “The absence of an appropriate communication system results in the use of unreliable communication methods and sometimes no communication at all‚” the regulator noted.

The trains should only operate on certain lines‚ it signalled.

“The results of the inspection and assessment confirm that the Afro 4000 series of locomotives is designed and manufactured to a height of 4140mm above rail head. This height exceeds the vehicle structure gauge height of 3965mm as required in the Transnet Freight Rail track maintenance manual. The impact of this deviation is that there is a greater risk of interference between Overhead Traction Equipment and the locomotive.

“Accordingly‚ the RSR approves the deployment of the Afro 4000 series on the 25kV lines in the Free State‚ Northern Cape and Eastern Cape‚ provided that the conditions highlighted in the assessment are met.”

Among its concerns is driver safety.

“Based on the activities that the train driver and train assistants are required to execute‚ the RSR is of the view that the train assistant’s seat was placed too close in proximity to the driver’s seat‚” the regulator found. “The space restriction caused by the placement of the assistant’s seat means that should an emergency evacuation be necessary‚ the assistant would struggle to exit the cab safely and quickly.”

In addition‚ the seats were also found to have insufficient lumbar support for the train assistants and drivers.

“The RSR reiterates that all the safety critical items identified and communicated with Prasa in this report must be addressed before an operating licence can be granted for the locomotives to be operated on the South African network. These include the successful completion of the tunnel tests and the acceptance of the results by the RSR‚ cab ergonomics analysis‚ all of which must be submitted to the RSR for evaluation and assessment purposes‚” the statement said.

“With the exception of locomotive height limitations in certain areas of the network and subject to the highlighted conditions in this report‚ the Prasa Afro 4000 series locomotives possess acceptable performance capabilities to operate in the South African network.”

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