CEO of state-run Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) Lucky Montana says “vested interests” working through the media are seeking to create the impression that the agency’s executives are “incompetent” and “corrupt”.
This follows weekend media reports that locomotives procured by Prasa from Spanish manufacturer Vossloh Espana were the incorrect height and could damage the overhead electrical cables on the country’s rail lines.
Prasa has to date received 13 new diesel locomotives, which it procured for its long-distance service, Shosholoza Meyl, at a cost of R600m. It is set to take delivery of seven more, as well as 50 hybrid locomotives in the R3.5bn deal.
This contract is separate from the R51bn contract Prasa awarded to the Gibela empowerment consortium, of which Alstom Southern African Holdings is the largest shareholder, to deliver 600 Alstom trains for Prasa’s commuter rail fleet renewal programme.
At a news briefing in Pretoria on Monday, a visibly angry Mr Montana denied the acquired locomotives were the incorrect height and accused the journalist responsible for the report of not checking the facts.
Mr Montana said the Rail Safety Regulator, which had granted Prasa a testing and commissioning permit for the locomotives, was the “final arbitrator”, and would not have granted the permit if the specifications of the locomotives were incorrect.
He said the locomotives received were in the middle of tests in Mahikeng, Bloemfontein and parts of the Eastern Cape.
As part of the test, some of these locomotives were used to transport passengers from Johannesburg to the Cape Town Jazz Festival earlier this year, he said.
Locomotives that have passed the testing process and received regulator approval are expected to be operating commercially at the end of next month. Prasa also plans to test the trains in Limpopo.
Mr Montana said the trains were meant not only to revitalise the local long-distance train service but also to be used for regional travel on the continent.
Rail Safety Regulator spokeswoman Babalwa Mpendu said Prasa had been issued a “no objection” to test the AFRO4000 locomotives, which had to be done under operational conditions.
The agreed testing period was six months and ended in August, she said. After this the regulator would have 30 days to look at the report and decide whether the testing needed to be extended or whether the locomotives could operate commercially. “There are still things we can only find after the report. We still have to see what impact there is at the point of operational conditions,” she said.
Prasa cited an article by Afrikaans newspaper Rapport, which said the locomotives had a roof height of 4.264m but the maximum height for diesel locomotives in SA is 3.965m.
According to Prasa, the writer relied on three unnamed senior Transnet engineers. The article also said Prasa had continued with the contract despite engineers’ warnings.
But on Monday Prasa said the locomotives had a height of 4.1m. The distance between the rail and electric wire is 5m, with a minimum height of 4.5m, giving a clearance between the contact wire and the roof of 400mm.
Mr Montana said at the time of procuring the trains, there had been much debate from people with “vested interests” about which locomotives were being procured and from where. Opposition parties had lobbied for them to be built by Transnet.
Mr Montana said “some people” had tried to “force certain kinds of locomotives” on the agency that were not suitable for its kind of business. The locomotives Prasa eventually procured could not be built anywhere in SA.
“Prasa has acquired the best locomotives in the world. And we are not here to apologise,” Mr Montana said.
Prasa’s rail operations executive manager for engineering services, David Mtimkulu, said the new locomotives were outperforming expectations and were far more fuel-efficient, using just 6,000l of diesel between Johannesburg and Cape Town, versus the 16,000l used by the older locomotives.
He said the locomotives had 54% local content.
Mr Montana said he was disappointed by the comments made by political parties, which he described as “misplaced and ill-informed”. He was hoping the parties would have a chance to withdraw their remarks.
“I hope political parties will familiarise themselves with the facts before trying to score cheap political points,” he said.
The Democratic Alliance has said the locomotives could damage overhead electric cables on the country’s rail lines, while the Economic Freedom Fighters called for Mr Montana’s resignation. The Congress of the People wanted to know why Prasa had ignored warnings about the locomotives.