Guest Column

Why we need a 'thuma mina' trains signalling project team to fix deadly railway network failures

2019-06-16 10:00
Metrorail train. (Duncan Alfreds, News24, file)

Metrorail train. (Duncan Alfreds, News24, file)

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For thuma mina to be taken seriously, it has to be broken into to manageable thuma mina projects with clear objectives, responsibilities, timelines and budgets, and managed by competent people, writes Phumlani Moholi.

Graphic photographs of injured commuters, burning coaches, mangled railway tracks often symbolise the death and destruction caused by train accidents. The images are stark, disturbing and increasingly part of the national tableau, mostly blamed on train signalling technology failures.

We know all too well the heartbreak that a deadly train crash causes. Every year there are train accidents and derailments and in one accident, the signalling infrastructure had not worked for two years.

In this era of President Cyril Ramaphosa's "thuma mina" (send me), "new dawn" and Industry 4.0, how can our rail system, the biggest transporter of people and goods suffer such technological malaise? And what can be done to give the rail system the same attention we give the airline industry?

In the airline industry, these incidents would not be tolerated; any incident is one to many. Why? Because the basic fundamental existence of the airline industry is air traffic control and without it there would be no flying, and safety would be compromised.

So, like air traffic control, the train signalling system is the foundation of the control of the movement of trains and timing.

For thuma mina to be taken seriously, it has to be broken into to manageable thuma mina projects with clear objectives, responsibilities, timelines and budgets, and managed by competent people. One of those should be to fix the railway system. To do this, signalling should be the premier project.

What are the benefits of a properly function railway signalling system? The following are some examples of benefits:

  • Safety – Safe travel by commuters and reduction of accidents
  • Improved scheduling of trains – How many of us have travelled worldwide and marvelled when a scheduled train arrives and departs on time? Why can't we do it in our country?
  • Improved productivity – Planning is easier when trains run on schedule. People would plan their daily activities with certainty, knowing that they would arrive at their destinations on time. On the work front, people would be on time at work and on time going back home after work.

All of the above would encourage more train users and relief of traffic congestion on our roads.

For the reasons mentioned, railway signalling should be prioritised as the number one project for fixing the railway system and network.

Some lessons were learnt in the delivery and staging the 2010 FIFA World Cup.  Every technical system was designed with redundancy, meaning that if there was a failure in one area, a backup would kick in to clear the failure and ensure that the games will go on. This is how the 2010 World Cup that we are so proud of was successfully managed.

A redundancy system is what is done to run mission critical systems and those are basics of systems engineering. Similarly, a railway signalling system should be designed with redundancy and there are existing technologies and methods that can provide this redundancy.

So, the way forward should be for the government to give a mandate to a Thuma Mina Trains Signaling Project Team, support it to navigate the bureaucracy to deliver on this with clear budgets, plan, timeliness and responsibilities. 

- Phumlani Moholi is an engineer, co-founder and director at Rain Networks, former chief of the IT and Telecoms 2010 World Cup Organising Committee and former chief technology officer at MTN South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views.The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 

Read more on:    rail infrastructure  |  trains
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