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Surtees Rail Poised for Another 60 Years
Surtees Rail Poised for Another 60 Years
Posted on 14 April 2010
It is fitting – 2010 being a significant year in the history of railways in South Africa – to train the spotlight on the Surtees Rail Group (SRG). This stalwart of the country’s rail industry celebrates 60 years in business in South Africa, this year. Railways Africa spent time with Surtees director Tony Wood at the company’s Heriotdale headquarters on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

RA: How do you view business prospects, post 2010?

SRG: Our company is cautiously optimistic of growth in the short to mid-term. Though we felt the effects of the economic downturn like everyone else, we were fortunate in that we have an established client base; mainly blue-chips in the mining sector, who rely on us for all their railway needs. Also, demand for our diverse range of rail equipment and services has grown steadily of late. We have worked hard over the years to achieve and maintain our reputation as a dependable supplier of parts and products, for various OEMs.

RA: Surtees has indicated interest in the proposed concessioning of branch lines. Can you elaborate?

SRG: We are very interested, and are currently investigating and weighing up options. Already, as things stand, we carry out the entire rail function on certain stretches of line, for a number of clients. From our perspective, strategic partnerships could very well be the key to unlocking win-win scenarios for running branch lines. Surtees has the wherewithal, for example, to partner a logistics supplier meaningfully, but much would depend on specific requirements in each case.

RA: Are you concerned at all about the level of skills in this country?

SRG: Well, yes and no. The country has lost a significant amount of expertise and experience due to various factors, but it’s not as if we’ve suddenly all become incompetent. At Surtees we place a high premium on training. For example, we have one of the finest training facilities for train drivers in the country. With three accredited trainers testing and validating new drivers, we can hardly keep up with demand. There is certainly enough knowledge and skill to go round; we simply need a concerted effort to prioritise and encourage skills transfer.

RA: What are your thoughts on black economic empowerment (BEE)?

SRG: BEE is a fact of life in South Africa and we comply fully. Naturally, improving one’s BEE status entails – to a large degree – finding suitable partners in various areas of your business, and one cannot always speak out about them before the fact. We continue to explore empowerment opportunities.

RA: Surtees is the official agent for many well-known names in rail products. Can you give some examples?

SRG: To start with, we are the Southern African agents for the popular Trackmobile bi-modial rail shunting units; also for PENN machine driving gears and pinions, a Transnet Freight Rail approved product. In addition, we have the agency for Whiting portable electric screw-jacks, widely regarded as world-leaders.

RA: What about business in the rest of Africa?

SRG: We regard developments in sub-Saharan Africa as truly exciting. As you probably know, we were awarded a contract, along with Transnet Rail Engineering, to refurbish wagons and locomotives for TransNamib in Namibia. This includes extensive work on ten locomotives – including some that have been severely damaged – and we are pleased to say we are well ahead of schedule. In the rest of Africa, we interact continuously with various companies in a long list of countries, among them Mozambique, Tanzania, Congo-Brazzaville,Cameroon and the DRC. We sell and lease locomotives and related equipment to clients everywhere and our artisans, technicians and sales executives undertake regular visits. We foresee steady growth and expansion in this area.

RA: Tell us more about the Surtees Group and its history.

SRG: Well, it all began as a family business, with Arthur Surtees and his son Colin in 1950. Surtees Railway Supplies (SRS), as the company was later called, started out by manufacturing, stocking and supplying steam locomotive and hopper equipment and parts for the industrial railway industry in Southern Africa.

With the introduction of diesel-hydraulic and diesel-electric locomotives about a decade later, SRS began to import, manufacture and stock equipment and parts for these units. By the 1990s, SRS had increased its warehouse space substantially and added a second workshop, enabling it to offer specialised manufacturing, reconditioning and repair facilities for all types of rolling stock.

Today the Surtees Rail Group of Companies consists of SRS, Surtees Engineering and African Rail and Traction Services.

RA: Are you involved in the passenger side of rail at all?

SRG: Yes indeed: we are a registered supplier to the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), and provide a range of important products such as wheelsets.

RA: Much has been said recently about rail’s shortcomings in handling freight. What is your take on this?

SRG: In the next few years, as we see it, the performance of Transnet Freight Rail (TFR) is going to be absolutely critical. We will gladly support them in any way we can, and I’m sure I speak for most of the major role-players in our industry. All of us need to encourage and support TFR in working towards the optimisation of freight movement on our railways.