Investigation is derailed as Prasa’s new trains only ‘speak’ Spanish

The Passenger Rail Agency of SA's new Afro 4000 locomotives only speak Spanish, which is hampering an investigation into the accident involving a Shosholoza Meyl train.

The probe by the Railway Safety Regulator into derailment of the 11-carriage train, which was pulled by one of the controversial new locomotives, two weeks ago in the Northern Cape, has had to rely on information from sources other than the train’s data because of the language issue.

On Friday, the regulator released a preliminary investigation report into the incident. It said: “[The] downloaded data from the locomotive were in Spanish.”

The Afro 4000 trains, which Rapport revealed were too tall for the country’s railway system, were made in Spain.

“The investigators wanted to highlight that the data were in Spanish rather than English, and were not analysed. The in-depth investigation will deal with this issue further,” said the Railway Safety Regulator’s Babalwa Mpendu. “When we continue our inquiry, we will ask why [the data] were in Spanish.”

The regulator has had to rely on information other than that captured by the locomotive’s own computer.

“The speed [at which the train was travelling before the derailment] was not extracted from the locomotive data logger, but was taken from the Centralised Traffic Control office,” said Mpendu.

Sources with first-hand knowledge of the contract Prasa awarded to buy 70 locomotives, worth R3.5 billion, from Spanish manufacturer Vossloh Espana say it is unheard of to buy locomotives with computer systems that don’t work in English.

“Even the locomotives we bought from Japanese manufacturer Mitsui were custom-programmed in English,” a source told City Press’ sister paper, Rapport.

A locomotive’s data logger performs a similar function to a plane’s flight recorder, or “black box”, and captures vital information about the conditions that may have caused an accident.

Another railway expert who has worked on previous accident investigations says the data are vital and could be used in court cases and other legal proceedings after an accident.

“The moment you start having to translate the information from the source language into another language, you could potentially jeopardise the data’s integrity,” said the source.

A locomotive’s on-board computer also highlights any mechanical problems.

“Are we going to teach our technicians Spanish, or are we going to have to bring Spanish technicians to South Africa each time the Afro 4000s need attention?” one Prasa source told Rapport.

Technicians from Vossloh Espana are now in the country to address mechanical problems already experienced by two of the 13 Afro 4000s that have been delivered so far.

Despite the regulator’s report, Prasa yesterday denied that the Afro 4000s’ computer systems were in Spanish.

“All computer programmes on the Afro 4000 are in English, hence the DDU [driver display unit] also displays the driver information in English,” Prasa stated in an email.

“The locomotive data are in English. There’s therefore no need for Prasa to make use of translators, as our drivers and technicians are conversant with the English language.”

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