With self-mo­ti­va­tors like Kas­turie Pil­lay, the fu­ture looks bright for SA’s rail in­fra­struc­ture project

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Al­stom, a world leader in rail trans­port equip­ment, has made a bold move to­wards equip­ping young South African en­gi­neers with a range of skills in train man­u­fac­tur­ing. Th­ese skills range from en­gi­neer­ing and de­sign, and tech­no­log­i­cal and man­age­ment tech­niques, through to build­ing trains from scratch. As South Africa pre­pares to launch a state-of-the-art train man­u­fac­tur­ing and assem­bly plant in Dun­not­tar, east of Jo­han­nes­burg – with the tar­get to de­liver on the 20-year project to sup­ply the Pas­sen­ger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) with 600 ul­tra­mod­ern trains – the project could not be any big­ger than Prasa’s 2027 in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment plan.

Gi­bela, an Al­stom em­pow­er­ment con­sor­tium, looks to the fu­ture of the South African pas­sen­ger rail ser­vice, with the aim of trans­fer­ring skills and knowl­edge to young South Africans, thus en­sur­ing in­dus­trial ca­pac­ity for the coun­try’s young en­gi­neers and the in­dus­try.

Kas­turie Pil­lay (35) is one of 12 young en­gi­neers and de­sign­ers who left for France in Fe­bru­ary and is ex­cited to be part of the “world-class train­ing” she and the oth­ers in her group are re­ceiv­ing in France.

For the past six months, Pil­lay says she has been trained on any­thing from de­sign­ing and as­sem­bling to build­ing rail equip­ment from scratch us­ing state-ofthe-art equip­ment.

A model of self-mo­ti­va­tion, grit and de­ter­mi­na­tion, Pil­lay took charge of her life when she re­alised her fam­ily’s fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion would not al­low her to study fur­ther after she ma­tric­u­lated in 1997.

Raised by a sin­gle mother in Chatsworth, Dur­ban, Pil­lay says she al­ways wanted to be­come an en­gi­neer from an early age, but due to her fi­nan­cial cir­cum­stances, she had to find other ways to achieve her dreams.

This drive re­quired her to build on her skills through hard work, which in­cluded tak­ing on temp work and short com­puter cour­ses.

“If you grew up like I did ... your dreams are ev­ery­thing and with your dreams, noth­ing is im­pos­si­ble if you are will­ing to work to­wards achiev­ing them,” says Pil­lay with a glint of wis­dom on her face.

Her first job as a stu­dent temp while she was in high school gave her enough skills to con­tinue work­ing after ma­tric. She soon re­alised that the more she worked, the bet­ter the em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties.

She also worked at her un­cle’s print­ing press, but it was at a bulk shipping company in Dur­ban where Pil­lay felt her life was tak­ing shape.

She could fi­nally af­ford to en­rol in me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing cour­ses. This has been piv­otal in her rise to be­com­ing a sought-after train de­signer, hav­ing worked as head of de­sign for the Gau­train project.

With 10 years’ me­chan­i­cal and de­sign ex­pe­ri­ence, the soft-spo­ken de­signer has come a long way. She is one of the first 12 young en­gi­neers head­hunted to be­come part of the Gi­bela project. “I am grate­ful to those who head­hunted me from among many other young de­sign­ers,” she says. “It is their faith in me and the value they en­trusted in my skills that mo­ti­vate me to work even harder.” Speak­ing about the train­ing she is re­ceiv­ing in France away from friends and fam­ily, Pil­lay has only praise for the “con­cise, in­te­grated and so­phis­ti­cated” French way of do­ing things.

She says the teach­ing meth­ods are “noth­ing she has seen” any­where else.

Once the train­ing is com­plete, the young en­gi­neers will re­turn to the coun­try and lead de­sign teams, main­te­nance teams, val­i­da­tion teams and assem­bly teams that will see out the com­ple­tion of the project. With Pil­lay and her col­leagues at the helm, the fu­ture looks bright for South Africa’s rail in­fra­struc­ture project. Not one to rest on her lau­rels, Pil­lay is achiev­ing her long-held dream of grad­u­at­ing with a univer­sity de­gree. She is study­ing for a na­tional diploma in me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing through Unisa, while also jug­gling the de­mands of the de­sign in­dus­try. In­di­vid­ual and team projects all form part of Pil­lay’s train­ing here and in France. And once that is done, she in­tends con­tin­u­ing with her stud­ies. Pil­lay is due back in France this month, but is en­joy­ing be­ing at home with her mother, younger sis­ter and nieces.

When she is not busy with fam­ily obli­ga­tions, she is sure to be work­ing on the next big de­sign she has run­ning through her cre­ative brain.

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