Engineering on a roll


Africa’s steel dragons are of vital importance to South Africa’s economy – and our mining industry has most to gain from a well-oiled engineering discipline.

For over a century, trains have been objects of power, mystery, romance, amazement and awe. Where once it was smoke wafts, whistles, metal creaks and rattles that captured everyone’s imaginations, it is now precision engineering and the sheer power of electric and diesel locomotives that demand the ultimate respect.

Respect for the trade and pride in the work they do, run through each and every one of the more than 13 000 qualified personnel working countrywide at Transnet Engineering’s operations.

Transnet Engineering is one of five operating divisions of Transnet SOC Ltd.

“We have a multi-faceted engineering discipline dealing with the design, manufacture and maintenance operation of all types of railway rolling stock,” explains Transnet Engineering Chief Executive, Richard Vallihu.

“There’s no, or little, margin for error and we strive for perfection with integrated focus, delivering integrated, efficient, safe, reliable and cost-effective products and services.” Precision, is an important skill in this business and not easily accomplished, but with a dedicated team and with Vallihu steering, the process becomes seamless, productive and profitable.

Vallihu was part of South Africa’s struggle for democracy with extensive military training, and has long since grown accustomed to being strongly focused and diligently directed - attributes vital for leading such a huge organisation.

“The many people I’ve encountered along the way, including the legendary Madiba helped shape my character and personality. I’ve learned that integrity, hard work, discipline, a deep curiosity as well as keen judgement, are essential leadership qualities. Obviously you need to know your stuff in detail,” he says.

Vallihu believes being yourself, self-aware, and grounded as well as the importance of earning the trust of the people around you, contributes to an authentic leader.

He has worked at Transnet for almost two decades serving as Chief Executive of Transnet Engineering since September 2005 and holds a BSc Honours degree from Loughborough University of Technology in the UK and a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Southern Queensland, Australia.

Previously, he was project manager at Standard Bank and that gave him ample experience in finance, which greatly assisted his successful career. “I believe every leader worth his salt in the business environment should have more than a keen insight and knowledge of finance and accounting. As my boss says finance is much too important just to leave up to the accountants.”

True, as in the 2013 financial year, Transnet increased its revenue by 14.3% (in the six months ending on 30 September 2013) to R28.5 billion, driving profit higher by 71.2%, while investing a R11.2 billion on rejuvenating and expanding infrastructure – despite global volatile and uncertain economic conditions.

The growth in income for the period under review was mostly driven by a 26% jump in containers and automotive on rail, and by a 12% increase in chrome volumes.

Transnet Engineering’s operating portfolio consists of nine national product focused businesses namely Locomotives, Coaches, Wagons Rolling Stock Equipment, Rotating Machines, Wheels, Foundry, Auxiliaries and Ports.

Operations comprise 132 maintenance depots, and six well-equipped ISO certified factories, with an extensive railway customer portfolio in 18 African countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, Angola, Malawi, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

In South Africa, approximately 250 million tons of coal, iron ore and general freight are transported every year on some of the world’s longest trains, comprising wagons that are designed, developed, manufactured and maintained by Transnet Engineering, emphasising the division’s importance when talking about mining, one of South Africa’s chief economic drivers. While TE services Transnet Freight Rail in the main, Prasa remains an important and crucial customer. For the advancement of mining in South Africa, Vallihu stresses: “It’s imperative to support the mining sector rail infrastructure with safe, reliable and cost-efficient rolling stock and rail related products for sustainable, effective and efficient operations from the pit to the loaded ship.”

Transnet Engineering’s competitive advantage in the local and export mining segment lies in its ability to leverage integrated cost efficiencies of rail transport for large volumes of bulk and break bulk commodities over long distances. It needs to provide integrated local and regional rail and port management, and the utilisation of customised assets and resources that are available and accessible to emerging and established junior miners.

“A case in point is the newly established Elitheni coal mine and operations in the Eastern Cape, for which unique customised coal container wagons were built,” says Vallihu.

In recent years we have managed to achieve consistent world-class availability and reliability measures through the dedicated teams servicing our corridors.

Operations are not without its challenges given the age of the rolling stock and the inherent nature of the railways.

“We are not nearly as perfect as we would like to be, given the odd locomotive or wagon failure or derailments,” admits Vallihu.

“If such delays occur, they are dealt with swiftly and efficiently to restore operations, and catch up plans are discussed to the satisfaction of all stakeholders,” assures Vallihu.

The catalyst for South Africa’s railway and harbour expansion can be attributed to the discovery of diamonds in Kimberly during 1866/7, which led to increased railway construction throughout the country, notably the Cape main line between De Aar and Kimberley.

But the very first (steam) train in South Africa, built by the Natal Railway Company, made its first official journey between Durban and Harbour Point on 26 June 1860. The distance of the railway line was only 3,2 kilometres and the journey lasted a mere five minutes.

Cape Town had already started building a 72km line linking Cape Town to Wellington in 1859, but was hampered by delays and could only open the first section of the line to the Eerste River on 13 February 1862.

Almost a decade after that, rumours of massive gold deposits in the Transvaal Republic were confirmed and almost overnight, economic power had shifted from the colonial south to the republican north.

In 1910, the Union was achieved with the country’s leaders adamant the railways and harbours should be used to unify and develop South Africa’s economy.

In May 2012, Transnet Engineering celebrated this rich heritage by marking the 150th anniversary of its Salt River Engineering Works plant in Cape Town. This plant – one of six Transnet Engineering factories in South Africa – has grown from the original workshops, built in 1862, to maintain the rolling stock on the Cape’s first railway line.

Today South Africa’s railway system is the most highly developed in Africa with rail transport being the largest and most crucial part of the freight logistics chain, delivering goods to each and every corner of the country, from pit to port. It also maintains the 4km trains (the longest in the world) that operate on Transnet’s Sishen-to-Saldanha heavy haul iron ore export corridor, and the Coallink corridor serving Richards Bay.

Further plans are in progress to develop a third heavy haul rail corridor to serve the new deep-water port at Ngqura near Port Elizabeth.

The 1 003km corridor is to be created by upgrading existing lines to connect the extensive manganese mining complex near Hotazel in Northern Cape with the Indian Ocean at Ngqura. As railways expanded, becoming a major economic force and vibrant industry, the need for more specialised engineers capable of dealing with the demands associated with heavy hauling, push-and-pull and differences in gauges, arose exponentially.

Transnet Engineering is not only committed to increased research and development in this regard, but also committed to invest in training of personnel, infrastructure and new production equipment.

“In November 2013, to boost South Africa’s manufacturing sector, we successfully launched the Automotive Wagon in the presence of President Jacob Zuma. This in effect makes it possible for Transnet Freight Rail’s CAB business unit to capture more market share, turning the tide of moving more general freight from road to rail,” says Vallihu.

The wagons were designed, engineered and manufactured in Transnet Engineering’s wagons facility in Uitenhage just outside Port Elizabeth. The wagons are part of Transnet’s R307 billion rolling seven-year infrastructure improvement programme: the Market Demand Strategy (MDS).

Internationally, South Africa compares to the best of engineering capabilities reckons Vallihu. Over the years due to isolation we have developed successful home grown solutions.

“We are a wagon build original equipment manufacturer (OEM) that boasts some of the most technologically advanced innovations such as the high speed bogie. We haul the iron-ore train which is the longest and heaviest 342 wagon train in the world, 14 times a day. We’ve partnered with OEMs producing modern technologically advanced locomotives comparable to any world class facility.

“In so doing, our workforce is being continuously developed so that we are on par with our counterparts in terms of competencies, technology and capability. It’s Transnet Engineering’s quest to become Africa’s rolling-stock OEM of choice. Bearing in mind we are also grateful for the support we get from our OEM partners over the years and still look forward to greater collaboration.”

Transnet Engineering plays a significant part in Transnet Freight in creating first-rate infrastructure for cheaper and more efficient industrial transport. It customises complete packages to meet operational requirements from manufacturing and maintenance to other supporting functions.

“From the locomotive side, we are now busy with the Class 43 for CFM – Mozambique Ports & Railways (10), and Anglo Kumba Iron Ore (6). From the wagons side, we have projects that are expected to be completed by the end of March for various customers such as Botswana Railways, the CDN, and Minas Moatize, with the most recent being the wagons order for SEP Congo.”

There are a number of partnerships formed with the public and private sector. “Transnet has formed a partnership with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) which will enable the two organisations to identify areas of co-operation through the CSIR’s technological and research capacity,” says Vallihu.

“We’ve also developed partnerships with educational institutions. In 2013 we signed MoUs with various FET colleges around the country, tapping into FET training. We’ve partnered with the University of Pretoria, Wits, Innovation Hub and numerous local suppliers to improve social development and local innovation.” Through partnerships with world leading OEM’s, Transnet Engineering has acquired intellectual property, technology and skills transfers to promote innovation within the company. “For the future, it’s our intention to strengthen our partnerships to derive greater value from our freight logistics system. We intend to play a positive role in the economic growth of South Africa, and in improving the lives of all South Africans."

Vallihu explains life’s complexity is about achieving balance, in work and personal life. “It’s rare to find complete job satisfaction, meaning and purpose in the workplace. Therefore community activism for me, plays a key role in attempting to breach that gap.

“South Africa has achieved so much in its young democracy, and we have a great future notwithstanding the challenges that lie ahead. We as a rainbow nation just have to chip away at it and do the best we can. It will work out in the end.”

Vallihu works each day in trying to make a difference. Staff members at his offices absolutely adore him and hold him in high regard. Vallihu laughs humbly about it: “Fortunately we’re a great team of people working at Transnet, which makes it so much easier.”

Vallihu tries to live by the maxim, ‘fortune favours the brave’.

“But clearly I need to do far more. Role models like Madiba and so many others, have demonstrated in the way they lived their lives the meaning of leadership – there’s enough lessons there to last a lifetime.”

Vallihu stands up to scrutiny and lives his life to the full. He is wild at heart, an avid and daring bike rider and track racer, and a boxing sparring activist in Transnet Engineering’s Boxing Academy. The boxing academy endeavours to make people understand and appreciate boxing for what it is–a science and art–not fighting or brawling. Calm focus and control is key.

Very much like Transnet Engineering itself where locomotives, coaches, wagons and rolling stock equipment are engineered through science with end results depicted as almost art.

Just like Richard Vallihu, who remains calm, focused and distinguished – slowly hauling Africa’s steel dragons into a new era.

Rizel Delano


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