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Taking Africa's first high-speed train into the future

Digital transformation at the Gautrain is all about efficiency, automation and customer experience, says the company’s CIO Nkhanedzeni Lugisani.
Read time 5min 10sec
Nkhanedzeni Lugisani, Gautrain.
Nkhanedzeni Lugisani, Gautrain.

I remember when the Gautrain was first launched. The route between Sandton and OR Tambo International Airport opened to the public on 8 June 2010, just three days before the start of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, a time when South Africa was filled with foreigners, flags, festivities and, of course, vuvuzelas. But Africa’s first high-speed commuter rail system wasn’t built only for the World Cup. The rapid transit railway system was actually developed to address traffic congestion in Gauteng.

Over a decade of savings and success
In just over a decade, the Gautrain has carried 126 million train passengers and 38 million bus passengers, according to the Gautrain Management Agency. During the same period, the Gautrain has sustained approximately 12 000 jobs each year across its supply chains and has spent over R4.4 billion on local materials and equipment. Experts calculate that for every rand spent on the Gautrain, R2.60 is generated as an economic return for the Gauteng economy. From an emisions perspective, the average single trip on the train saves 2.8kg of carbon dioxide emissions per passenger when compared to a private car. This means that the service has saved around 360 000 tons of carbon dioxide pollution since the train started running in June 2010.

Steering the technology side of things at the Gautrain for over seven years, CIO Nkhanedzeni Lugisani has played a key role in the railway system’s innovation efforts and digital transformation strategy. “For me, as a CIO, it’s important to look ahead. You need to envision where you want the organisation to go in the future and then actively work towards that and put plans in place to make your goals a reality.”

For Lugisani, these plans include leveraging emerging technologies to automate, personalise and streamline, where possible. And it seems to be possible in many parts of the business. For example, the tendering system has been automated to eliminate manual processes and save time. Drones are also being used to eliminate the need for manual inspections. “To aid planning, we could send out drones to gather information around how the stations function during the busy morning period. If the stations don’t flow effectively, there could be a lot of passenger congestion at entrances and exits, which we want to eliminate. We will also send the drones across train tracks to check that everything is running as it should.”

Traditionally, government procurement processes don’t encourage innovation because if you do something and it fails, it’s seen as a waste of money.

Lugisani says customer experience is the cornerstone of what the company does, noting that it’s really important to create personalised experiences for customers – be they regular users or once-off passengers. “We’ve profiled our customers – some are business people, some are students, some are regulars, some are tourists and some are once-off riders. We use these profiles to target passengers and offer more specific, more personalised experiences,” she says. By understanding how Gautrain users move around, she and her team can develop tools that make it possible for passengers to travel in ways that suit them best.

So, if a customer leaves home at 7am every day and comes home at 5pm, they want to be able to suggest the right train, bus or Gautrain midi-bus to ensure that their journey is as smooth as possible. This is also important so that they can develop new services when and where the need arises. “It’s about so much more than moving from point A to point B. It demands that we understand customer patterns and then use this data to make recommendations to customers based on their behaviour and preferences.” This experience needs to carry from when the passenger is preparing for their journey, to when they’re in the station, to when they’re actually riding on the train or bus and then finally post trip, she notes.

Cloudy with a chance of efficiency

Perhaps her biggest digital transformation project yet, Lugisani says they made the decision to migrate to the cloud back in 2017 because they wanted to better understand users’ needs, automate processes and enable employees to be more productive and make faster decisions, from anywhere. In partnership with Microsoft, she and her team were able to deploy various tools that delivered on all of these needs. When the pandemic forced everyone to work remotely, they could easily offer seamless mobility to remote workers because cloud products and services allowed employees to access business applications and information from any location. “For us, it was business as usual.”

Introducing Gautrain 2
While there was some back and forth around Gautrain extension projects due to pandemic-related drops in demand, CEO Jack van der Merwe announced in August that Gauteng’s express commuter rail system would be expanding as planned. The move is driven by estimated growth in Gauteng’s population, which is expected to reach 19.1 million people by 2037 (up from 12.9 million people in 2014). The number of workers in the province is set to hit 9.2 million by 2037 (increasing from 6.3 million in 2014) and many of these people will be taking home-to-work and work-to-home trips every day. Gautrain 2 will see an additional 150km of railway line being constructed, with another 19 stations to the existing train network.

Their digital transformation journey was all about empowering employees and optimising business processes, she continues. “These may seem like basics, but if you don’t get the basics right, you won’t have a solid foundation. And if you don’t have good foundations, you won’t be ready to handle all of the changes you want to make.”

Lugisani believes that the partnership with Microsoft enabled Gautrain to better use data to make more informed decisions. For example, the supply chain now has more information than it has ever had, so it’s far easier to identify any sticking points in the processes and easily come up with ways to improve and bring everything together more effectively.

Everything we do is about the customer, she continues. “While our aim is to get more riders, getting customer experience right means that we will get more riders that keep coming back because they get more value out of their Gautrain experience.”

This focus on people carries across into the back-end. “Most of the challenges I’ve faced during my time at the Gautrain have to do with people,” she notes, adding that finding people with the right IT skills and vendors with the right level of competency isn’t easy. This is why a lot of aspects have been brought in-house. But this doesn’t always guarantee success or support, she cautions.

“Traditionally, government procurement processes don’t encourage innovation because if you do something and it fails, it’s seen as a waste of money. But this goes against what innovation is about,” Lugisani says. “Real innovation comes when you ask the right questions, but also when you don’t over-plan; when you just jump in and experiment without being afraid of making mistakes.”

* This feature was first published in the February edition of ITWeb's Brainstorm magazine.

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