On the face of it, the auction sale notice looked fairly routine. 13 diesel locomotives were for sale, the property of a leasing company that had gone into liquidation.
But then, after reading more carefully, the picture changed. For these are the locos that Vossloh Spain built for South Africa – Class Afro 4000 – in 2014/15.
The history of this class is a complex one. Originally, 20 diesel locomotives were ordered by the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA), to be followed by 50 electro-diesel locomotives. They would be owned by Swifambo Rail Leasing but operated by PRASA.
At the tendering stage, Vossloh decided to submit a bid based on its Euro 4000 design, which had operated successfully in Europe since its launch at InnoTrans in 2006.
Some modifications were needed. The South African locos would be ‘Cape’ gauge (3 feet 6 inches – 1,067mm), which meant the design had to revert to using tread brakes as there was no room for disc brakes to be fitted to the narrower bogies.
The loading gauge requirements, as submitted, called for a maximum height of 4,140mm above the rail head. The standard Euro 4000 has a height of 4,264mm, but the manufacturer decided that the small difference could be accommodated by rearranging rooftop equipment and making some minor modifications.
The tender was submitted on the above basis and a contract signed between Swifambo Rail Leasing and Vossloh Spain in the first half of 2013.
Some eight months later, after the locos had been designed, Vossloh received a revised loading gauge. It turned out that the maximum height should have been 3,965mm, not 4,140mm. The higher figure contained an allowance for the pantographs on an electric locomotive, but the roof height had to be no more than 3,965mm.
Vossloh replied that achieving the new figure would require a complete redesign of the locomotive. PRASA therefore decided to accept the new locos to the higher standard, commenting that, since South Africa’s minimum wire height was 4.5 metres, there would still be plenty of clearance.
But that wasn’t so. In many places on the network, whatever the standard should have been, wire heights were lower than 4.5 metres. PRASA itself conducted trials in January and February 2014, which showed that some wire heights were as low as 4,150mm. The 10mm clearance between those wires and the roof of the new locos was simply too little and the recommendation was to suspend delivery of the new locos pending a review.
However, the first of the new locos was delivered in November 2014. By July 2015, 13 had arrived in South Africa, with PRASA chief executive Lucky Montana still asserting that there was nothing wrong with the height of the locomotives.
On 15 July, Lucky Montana was fired from his job as chief executive of PRASA. Two days later, chief engineer Dr Daniel Mthimkhulu, who would have advised on the height issue, followed him. It turned out that he wasn’t a doctor at all, had never even been to the university from which he claimed to have graduated, and had falsified his qualifications.
Testing continued, and, on 19 August 2015, locomotive 4010 derailed at Modderrivier near Kimberley, being severely damaged in the accident which was due to” incomplete work on the railway lines and poor communication”.
In November 2015, PRASA chairman Popo Molefe applied to South Africa’s high court to have the contract with Swifambo Rail Leasing annulled. This application was granted in July 2017, with the court finding that the tender process had been rigged in favour of Swifambo Rail Leasing.
Now, with Swifambo in liquidation, the 13 locomotives (one of them badly damaged) are for sale, but can’t run on South African railways.
There are other railways that use the same gauge. These include several former British colonies in Africa, Queensland in Australia and Japan. But do any of those want 13 (or maybe 12) locomotives, low mileage, one careful owner?