Yale Engineering Products (PTY) Ltd

+27 (0)11 794-2910

Keep the stock rolling

Keep the stock rolling

Posted On: 15 September 2009
"Necessity was not just the mother of the Bloemfontein Diesel Depot, it was the seed that blossomed into a trailblazing model of business efficiency."
- By Ailsa Uys extracted with permission from TRANSNET ONE
“Colleagues have been empowered, Bloemfontein depot has become a cutting-edge engineering division. We are proud of these achievements. It is a first for Africa.”
- Johan Rossouw, Profit Centre Manager: Bloemfontein Diesel Depot

It all began in 2006 when Johan Rossouw, Bloemfontein’s Profit Centre Manager, began wondering: "there had to be a way to repair and service locomotives that would not cause delays of two to three weeks. The cost of these delays was high, not only in terms of loss of income but in high haulage costs, downtime and ultimately unhappy clients."

Johan modestly explains: “I began researching options on the internet and learnt about the Wheel Drop System used extensively in Europe. It made sense for us to implement the same system.”

With the Wheel Drop System, a machine in a pit in the shed floor is used to safely remove and replace wheelsets and repair coupled-rail vehicles’ traction motors. Since it’s in a pit below the train, technicians have unhindered access to the bogie and rail vehicle. Since its introduction, the equipment has changed five traction motors and transformed colleagues’ lives and working conditions.


It was not plain sailing from the outset. Johan had to make a few “interesting detours” but says they were worth their weight in locomotives. During his initial research, he wanted to have the system evaluated and considered for the Bloemfontein Diesel Depot. Local experts were invited to fine tune the specifications needed. “We had to consider the specifications for every locomotive in the fleet to ensure compatibility, choose the right contractors and, of course, get the budget approved,” says Johan. After an open tender process, Yale Engineering, was awarded the contract. Lorraine Barlow, Project Manager: Transnet Rail Engineering says, “From the very beginning it was vital to have the right people. The system had to be of the highest quality and as it was a first for the continent it had to set a good example. The difficulty arose because there was no working example – Transnet’s was a new concept. Our specifications were unique.”

As there was no precedent, Lorraine and her team had to provide the motivation for going ahead with the project. They reasoned that productivity would improve, cutting each maintenance job by at least a week, reducing the labour bill and improving turnover times and therefore the availability of locomotives. It made perfect business sense.


Once approved, the real work began – and with it came the first challenge. Because all equipment had to come from Germany, precision planning and timing were of the essence. The foundation had to be laid in Bloemfontein so that the equipment could be installed as soon as the shipment had arrived. But then they hit a snag. “While digging the pit foundation, we realised that the shed had been built on the site of the old steam-train shed!” says Johan incredulously. “We uncovered rails from a bygone era and this caused a small delay.” But nevertheless the project was completed within the four-month deadline – with a day or two to spare.

Lorraine adds: “The challenges coupled with the excitement of working on a ground-breaking project made the team, comprising four separate divisions, really come together and work as one.” The four divisions that made it happen were Engineering, Infrastructure and Risk, Project Management and Locomotive Maintenance.


All parties agree on the effectiveness of the new installation. Pragasen Pillay, General Manager: Locomotives Transnet Rail Engineering (TRE), excitedly says, “The system, which was great in theory, is even better in real time.” Walking into the shed containing the new equipment is like walking into the winning team’s locker room after a big game. The excitement is palpable; the team cannot get enough of the new invention. Johannes Nxito, a technical worker trained to work on the wheel-drop table, sings its praises: “It’s the best. It only takes a morning to change a wheel or fix a traction motor. It is safer, easier and much quicker.”

To date, Yale Engineering has trained six technicians on the new technology. Says Jan Nel, Senior Technical Worker: “What’s best about the new system, is the teamwork it requires. You need to look out for one another and help your colleagues.” Smiles all round testify to the improved spirit. Johannes adds that it feels good to be working with the most modern equipment: “Many of our colleagues are envious!”

Johan is upbeat about the changes and their knock-on effect. “Colleagues have been empowered, Bloemfontein diesel depot has become a cutting-edge engineering division. We are proud of these achievements. It is a first for Africa. It proves that it is possible to be an innovator wherever you are.”

Lessons learnt at the depot will be shared with colleagues from other depots who are to visit in the course of the year. “It is an ideal solution for smaller depots, especially those that are isolated from main centres. The investment is not unrealistic for the returns it gives. It will enable smaller depots to have control over their maintenance,” Johan says. Pragasen agrees and says two additional sites – Sishen and Polokwane – are already under consideration. He says, “The implications for Africa are endless. We can be the trendsetter, especially since the investment needed to install cranes in small African locations is very high. In fact, the need for specially built sheds and crane equipment makes it unobtainable. This initiative is bound to make it more feasible.”

Fact Box

  • 12.5 tons - carrying weight of the Wheel Drop System
  • R3 million installation cost
  • 3–4 tons - weight of a locomotive traction-motor wheelset
  • 80–115 tons - weight of a locomotive
  • 2–4 - number of people required to operate and change a traction motor on the Wheel Drop System
  • 7 - number of days saved on each repair job