SA is going a through a commuter rail revolution. We spoke to Gibela CEO Hector Danisa about it.

As someone who grew up in a mud hut near Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal, Hector Danisa admits he is a little surprised that he is now playing a leading role in recreating South Africa’s rail industry.

Danisa, who is CEO of the Gibela consortium, is leading efforts to build 600 trains for the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) as part of a R51 billion contract.

There is, however, more to this contract than just building trains. Under Danisa, Gibela is also putting together a supply chain to support an industry that basically disappeared 40 years ago.

This has seen it investing in skills development, offering research grants to academics, and setting up a supply chain of up to 200 companies.

The scale of efforts required to fix SA’s rail can't be understated, given its dire state of neglect. Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula has admitted as much, and recently said billions would be invested to revitalise the country’s ailing rail infrastructure.

Leading this endeavour is not what Danisa had imagined for himself, as a child who wanted to live in a brick house and grow up to be a teacher. These ambitions changed when, as a university student, he discovered a love for big engineering projects like building aeroplanes and submarines.

"I wanted to be involved in major engineering projects. I knew ultimately I wanted to be involved in something like that," he says.

It would be a while before he got to play a part in such projects. After graduating with a BSc Honours from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, he first had stints at several large corporations such as beer maker South African Breweries, transport group Imperial, and running Transnet’s ports.

In 2016, he got the chance to work on the type of large projects he always wanted to be a part of when he joined Gibela as a general manager in the CEO’s office.

Danisa joined at an exciting time. Gibela, which is a consortium made up of France’s Alstom and South Africa’s Ubumbano Rail, had three years earlier signed the deal to build the trains for Prasa.

Initially, he was the project director for the manufacture and supply agreement for Prasa’s new rolling stock, as well as the engineer for the rolling stock project. But when then CEO, Thierry Darthout headed back to France in 2019, Danisa applied for and got his job.

By the time Danisa took over, he has well placed to run the group, as he had extensive managerial experience and had already overseen capital projects of more than R1 billion.

Danisa needed all this experience when it came to making Prasa’s trains because, as he puts it, making trains are for more complex than building cars and planes. To make the X’trapolis Mega trains train required 200 design engineers, and it took three years to redevelop it for South Africa’s narrow-gauge rails.

Gibela also had the challenge of doing this while developing the train with no local infrastructure.

“The last train built in South Africa was built 40 years ago,” he says.

This meant it had to simultaneously set up a factory in Springs in Gauteng, as well as redesign the train for South African conditions. It also had to work closely with suppliers to make sure they were able to fabricate parts to necessary standards.

All this effort has eventually saw it hire about 900 people – and saw it make its first locally-built trains in 2019.

So far it has made 78 locally, and sourced 20 from Brazil.

The X’trapolis Mega trains are very different from what South Africans are used to. Instead of individual coaches, they are in essence long hollow tubes, that allows commuters to look down from end to end, and which can carry up to 1,200 people.

For rapid entry and exit, the doors open to about two metres, and as a safety measure, the train cannot move if the doors are open. They are also fully air-conditioned, and have CCTV cameras throughout.

They are also quick, as they go up to 120km/h, which is much faster than Prasa’s current fleet at 40/km an hour. The speed it will reach on your local commute is up to Prasa, which will be responsible for running them.

So far, a handful of X’trapolis Mega trains have made it on to the tracks, but as more come online, Danisa hopes it will encourage more people to take the train.

“We want to make rail the preferred mode of transport. So, when I go to work, instead of taking my car, I will take the train,” he says.