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Back on the rails?

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Back on the rails? It’s said that South Africa’s rail industry is but a shadow of its former glory; volumes have remained flat over the past 20 years and many lines are in a state of disrepair. Our country’s rail industry is, however, not a lost cause …

South Africa’s rail industry often receives criticism with regard to its operational standards and infrastructure (which isn’t totally unfounded). The industry does, however, have its highs … A range of tried-and-trusted F18 low-friction brake blocks, which have been used on goods trains across Africa since first being launched locally in 1967, are set to be introduced to the North American and European markets by DCD Metpro, a local on-tread, composite railway-brake-block manufacturer.

“Despite the fundamental design remaining unchanged for decades, the F18 range continues to be the most popular solution in Africa,” says Hlayisani Matelakengisa, DCD business manager for the rail and industrial division.

“The only aspect of the design that has changed is that asbestos was removed from the composite in 2000; for health and safety reasons. The continued success is testament to our capabilities, which we plan to extend by testing for the North American and European markets in the foreseeable future.”

He adds that DCD Metpro has already achieved measurable success in international rail markets, particularly in Australia, through its ARG range of high-friction brake blocks. These are based on the same concept as the F18s, but designed for use in higher speed and friction applications (such as passenger train and transportation motor coaches).

“The ARG range was launched in 2005, and is designed and manufactured specifically for the Australian market,” Matelakengisa points out. “Since its launch, this range has proved to be more cost-effective than any competitor product in Australia. Bearing this in mind, plans for expansion of the ARG range into new regions are currently being considered.”

DCD Metpro boasts the capacity to manufacture up to 720 000 on-tread railway brake blocks and 1,4-million brake-block-backing plates per annum. The Pretoria-based company currently manufactures 30 products for passenger, freight, locomotive and mining railways.

“DCD Metpro is well positioned to double its output without further investment,” says Matelakengisa. “In light of this, we will also focus on long-term expansion in Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC countries) – where South Africa is a strategic trade partner.”

The rail industry isn’t only expanding abroad, however, Plasser South Africa and Gulfstream Energy are keeping our country’s railway infrastructure in motion … “An essential part of our service business is the maintenance of railway lines across the country,” says Deon Hellberg, financial director, Plasser South Africa – local partner and agent for Plasser & Theurer (a heavy, on-track maintenance machinery designer and manufacturer).

Back on the rails? From the manufacture and supply of new machines and spare parts, technical support, major component overhaul and machine refurbishment, through to regular maintenance, Plasser South Africa ensures the ongoing operation of South Africa’s railway transport system.

“It’s a challenging business and one which demands operational efficiencies across all stakeholders and preferred suppliers,” says Hellberg. Key to Plasser South Africa’s ability to deliver service and maintenance, anywhere it is required, is the guaranteed supply and delivery of quality fuel products. 

“We use, on average, about 40 000 litres of fuel per month, with each delivery requiring anything from 10 000 to 20 000 litres,” continues Hellberg. “In addition, with no fixed depot of our own, the supply of fuel ‘on the move’, to whatever location we require, is critical.” The supply of fuel is a volume-based business, however, it is not always economically viable for larger players to deliver smaller quantities. 

Plasser South Africa found itself in this position with its previous supplier (a major oil company), which was not able to supply the required volumes to the remote areas in which Plasser South Africa operates.

“The consequences of this are huge,” Hellberg points out. “Reliable access to fuel is critical to our service delivery. Without it we are incapable of meeting our service agreements.” Delayed deliveries result in problematic downtime, leading to both a loss of productivity and unnecessary costs, due to machines and maintenance personnel left idle for several days in remote locations. Consequently, Plasser South Africa began researching alternative fuel suppliers …

This led the company to the petroleum solutions provider, Gulfstream Energy. “After discussions with Gulfstream in 2010, we embarked on an initial test run of a few shipments, after which it was appointed as our preferred fuel supplier,” explains Hellberg.

Shane Jegels, chairman and CEO of Gulfstream Energy, adds: “We believe in ‘making business easy’. In the case of Plasser South Africa, we understand that reliable access to fuel is essential to the smooth running of daily operations. To this end, we are committed to doing everything possible to ensure timeous delivery of fuel, thereby avoiding unnecessary downtime and breaks in productivity.”

Orders are placed electronically with Gulfstream, which is currently delivering approximately 40 000 to 50 000 litres of fuel per month. “It’s seamless and smooth,” continues Hellberg. “Prior to delivery, Gulfstream requests GPS coordinates to confirm exactly where supply is required, and then arrives on time every time.”

He adds that there are definite advantages to dealing with an independent wholesaler, such as Gulfstream. “Unlike bigger corporates, management is directly involved in daily operational issues. We have a direct line to any member of the team, irrespective of seniority, whenever needed.”

“It’s a win-win relationship,” adds Jegels. “We look forward to working with Plasser South Africa as it services our country’s railway infrastructure for many years to come.”

South Africa’s rail industry certainly isn’t a lost cause. It is setting its sights on overseas markets and is forming smart partnerships to keep the locomotive wheels turning … but only time will tell if it’s getting back on track, or if there will remain reasons to rail against this transport mode.

 
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