Signalling success

ACTOM Transport is responsible for many of the installations that keep South African business rolling on track: TABJ speaks to Peter Colborne about the company’s projects

ACTOM Transport is a division of ACTOM (Pty) Ltd, the largest manufacturer, repairer and distributor of electro-mechanical equipment and turnkey solutions in Southern Africa. ACTOM Transport also has a technology partnership with French company Alstom Transport. The transport division is split into two units: Traction Equipment and Projects (TEP) and Signalling. With a 250-strong team of employees, ACTOM Transport prides itself on being the go-to company for both freight and passenger railway signalling and systems work.

General manager, Peter Colborne reveals that their two biggest clients are Transnet Freight Rail who run the freight network and the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) who are responsible for passenger networks. “We also do a lot of work for mines,” he says, “loading facilities need access to the network and they contract us to signal those lines.”

In fact mining is where they may very well see their operation begin to expand to wider Sub-Saharan Africa as there is a growing need for coal and iron ore mines to run transport lines. Colborne predicts that, as this expands, these heavy ore railways will have a need for signalling – presenting ACTOM Transport with plenty of opportunities for growth outside of South Africa.

Local knowledge

While ACTOM Transport have carried out contracts for Botswana Rail and for Swaziland Railways (and historically some work in Zambia and Zimbabwe), the bulk of their work is in South Africa – reflecting the fact that the rail network business here is the most active in Southern Africa. Both Transnet and PRASA are keen to upgrade their systems over the next two decades and this means there is plenty of work to be had. In fact, around seven years ago Transnet announced that they had a backlog of work and invited international companies to apply for contracts, saying that there would be a great deal more work than large companies such as ACTOM could deal with.

While this did bring in other companies, ACTOM are still differentiated in that they are among a tiny handful of companies with local knowledge of the networks to be upgraded.

“My team know and understand what goes into a locomotive,” says Colborne, “They know the rest of the group’s businesses and who should be able to make what.” As investment in new rolling stock is likely within the future, this places ACTOM Transport in the unique position of being able to identify for the rest of the ACTOM group where manufacturing opportunities will lie. The group operates in a decentralised way with each division’s general manager being able to drive the business forward without too much interference but the company culture allows for managers to speak to each other and share important information on where there is potential for new business across divisions.

This strong local knowledge and ability to react to customer needs has meant that over the last 18 months, ACTOM Transport has secured 80% of the signalling project contracts awarded, a phenomenal figure by any standards.

Alstom products

Alstom is a recognisable name worldwide with a product range that includes everything from rolling stock to infrastructure including signalling, maintenance and integrated transport systems. ACTOM have a close relationship with Alstom and use many of their products and technology in their work.

Colborne says that South Africa’s rail network is, to some extent, playing catch-up with the rest of the world in not having a full electronic interlocking. “The electronic system does have its weaknesses, however, so there were sound reasons for not going into it too soon,” he says. “We’re now looking at an Alstom signalling product sourced from Rochester in the US that’s being used extensively in the US. We’re developing the necessary software and hardware to implement South African signalling and trains working rules and we’re writing software to automatically generate interlocking code that complies with these rules so that we are set up for the opportunities that are coming.”

Lightning fast work

At the start of this year lightning struck Kaalfontein station knocking out signalling and affecting all of the scheduled trains a day between Johannesburg and Pretoria. The severe disruption this caused and the desire by PRASA to do more than simply rebuild the old panel with equipment that is fast becoming obsolete, ACTOM won the contract to rebuild the whole interlocking system with new signalling equipment. The lightning also knocked out the control system in adjacent stations and that needed to be repaired too. This they did in around seven to eight weeks, a phenomenally difficult task that was achieved within the time limit set by the client. “We’re not really geared for emergency work,” says Colborne. “Our job is new build but the company didn’t have the resources and while other companies did tender – and I don’t think we were the cheapest – but we like to think we won that contract because they had faith we could fix it and fix it quickly. We have a great record for getting a job done on time and to budget.”

The signalling side of the business is getting very busy and, says Colborne, is about to get a tremendous amount busier. “The key drivers for that is that PRASA’s signalling system on their network is really old and they feel the need to improve safety and performance. They have old legacy equipment which has been in place for 50 years. It is very solid but, like any 50-year-old equipment, it starts becoming troublesome.” PRASA have recently awarded a R900 million contract to Siemens to build a new nerve centre to control the whole Gauteng network. An enquiry has now been issued by PRASA to resignal the Gauteng network. The prize the company currently has in its sights is to revamp the control centre and signalling for either Cape Town or the Durban area, both huge R2 billion projects. While Colborne admits losing the first contract to Siemens was a disappointment, he is very positive about ACTOM’s standing in the industry and their track record in past projects. Not to mention the amount of work that is likely to emerge in the medium to long term in the freight rail sector.

“The industry is going to grow massively…Transnet Freight Rail aren’t standing still either, they are automating the yards and putting in place general upgrades to their network.” In this climate where clients are keen to get their networks up to international standards of automation, ACTOM Transport are certainly a company to keep your eye on.