OP-ED Opinions 

News24.com | Why we need a ‘thuma mina’ trains signalling project team to fix deadly railway network failures

2019-06-16 10:00

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

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

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
  • 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.

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