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Getting the trains back on track

17 November 2021 7:15 PM
Digital technology

Africa’s largest rail network needs attention, could hydrogen be the answer

Let me first admit that the intro may be misleading. Hydrogen is not the short term solution. Transnet will need to do critical and significant work to stop the current damage to the network and restore it using more conventional means, but this is Business Unusual so it should plan for a future.

The current state

Recent reports of cable theft amount to kilometres of cable worth millions being stolen daily are part of the problem.

The pandemic impacted rail operations as we were told to stay home. That resulted in stations in some areas being vandalised to the point of being destroyed.

The reason for such destruction may not only be desperate people in a pandemic but rather the decades-long corruption that has affected State Owned Enterprises (SOEs). Flawed security contracts identified in the last few years saw much of the network not having sufficient security to protect the various key points. Not only was there not enough protection, there are indications that the companies that got the questioned contracts may have been part of encouraging the free for all at some locations.

Then there appears to be a shift from groups that may have focused on illegal mining to become part of the network that is targeting copper and other infrastructure for its base value.

A value that is a fraction of the replacement cost which results in major disruption to services, a drop in investment in new equipment and the need to increase fares which in term shift users to bus or taxi.

The long term issue though is that the Government has hoped it might find partners to run some of the 22 000 km network. Finding investors and aligning their objectives with the Governments appears to be the challenge. Government is looking to create empowerment and inclusion while investors are focused on efficiency and profit.

In the end, time has taken the greatest toll on the network, the equipment and the communities that once relied upon rail.

A just transition

For a train operator when a line is no longer profitable or the trains develop so they do not need to stop as often during cross country trips the operator would simply no longer stop there.

But to the towns that developed principally as rail stops, the consequence is significant.

Farms and businesses that may have relied on rail to transport goods, would need to find an alternative or cease operation.

That alternative played a part in sending rail towns into decline. Road transport improved and could move goods in varying volumes from exactly where it was being produced to exactly where it was needed.

Lowering demand would not lower costs and so with no option had to raise prices. Transnet had to cut costs and that meant cutting out stops and whole branches that were not able to cover their operating costs.

The long term impact was to make roads the only option and dooming the towns and surrounding industry into terminal decline.

This is the dilemma the Government faces as it has to tackle moving away from our reliance on coal while sustaining the large communities that have grown up to supply and service the coal industry.

How does the network operate

Rail is efficient and cheap for moving huge volumes long distances. The cost to build a rail connection is significant, but with basic maintenance and no vandalism can run reliably for many decades.

In urban areas, commuter rail allows for many more people to be transported safely and cheaply than any other form of transport. A good rail network that connects with a bus and taxi network to ensure most commutes are within 500 metres of their home and work could effectively remove the need for cars and get rid of traffic jams.

But while South Africa’s metropoles have significant rail infrastructure, most of it is legacy and not enough has been planned to connect growing and new suburbs.

The exception is the Gautrain. A massive project by the Provincial Government, National Government and the private sector to build a 80km network to counter the growing traffic congestion in Gauteng.

It was budgeted at R20 billion that rose in costs to over R30 billion. That is a cost of R375 million per kilometre. It was expected to have a lifespan of 75 years once complete and would transport 130 000 passengers per day.

Just under 40 000 used it daily in 2018/2019. Even so, it was the most modern and fastest link on the continent until the recent opening of a high speed link built in Morocco.

Gautrain uses a gauge (Standard) not used elsewhere in the country (Cape gauge), which allows for higher speeds (160km/h).

There are 15 varieties of gauge created before countries considered the implication of connecting their rail networks. Narrow gauges which make for smaller tunnels and passes though mountainous areas is the reason South Africa opted for its use for most of the country while the wider gauges allow for more speed and comfort.

How do trains work anyway

Industrial transport began when the steam engine was loaded onto a fixed track. Thanks to the tracks to control the heavy engine, its power could pull a significant amount of goods.

Once governments and industry saw the potential to move people and goods faster and cheaper than by wagon, there was a boom in railway building.

It resulted in many innovations and challenges. Like the technology boom we are currently living through, the expansion in rail created some very rich companies and men.

One challenge: creating a uniform set of time zones. Prior to rail transport, no one cared about the difference in time between two places as you were unlikely to move between them fast enough.

It along with refrigeration and shipping made any product able to be sent anywhere on the planet and for colonialists to extend their reach across the globe. South Africa’s extensive rail network is due to moving the gold and minerals from the interior of the country to the coasts to be sent back to colonial powers.

The steam engine was gradually replaced by a new electric based system. Electricity once connected could power multiple trains without need to carry fuel. For stretches where the electricity had not reached a diesel generator would create the electricity to power the train.

In urban areas electric trains are quiet and emission free with the exceptions of the powerful fans needed to keep the motors and brakes cool.

On rural networks the diesel carried by the locomotives could give a significant range while still moving thousands of tons of goods.

That is the story till now with Transnet being compelled to use their diesel trains in urban areas as a consequence of cable theft.

They do add significant pollution and noise and cost much more to operate.

A light at the end of the tunnel

We need to solve cable theft, solutions include making trading in stolen cable a more serious crime (this has been passed) to potentially banning the second hand use of copper (not really practical) to tech solutions to monitor rail sections with drones to spot thieves when they strike.

I think that is an over engineered solution with the likelihood that certain areas are more at risk than others and so we should focus efforts for a rapid response in those areas. Train networks have sections connected in circuits, when a circuit fails you can assume a fault or theft. The section may still be large so a secondary relay possibly using mobile signals would give a more precise location. Response times to the various sections can be timed and reduce the problem from having kilometres of cable stolen to crews being needed to instead reconnect cut cables.

Removing a significant section of cable is not easy and there are only a few places that could process it. Big rewards might see more arrests of those organising the theft rather than just those who are tasked with carrying it out and be much less than the cost to replace it.

Acknowledging that empowering small hopeful security operations is itself a serious risk and that more oversight would be needed until the new operators can prove their performance would be another step to improving things.

Having more operators will help but like the challenges at the start of the century, 3rd parties are likely to want to use sections that are already profitable.

Building a route like the one operated for iron ore transport will offer a reason to invest and then look for more opportunity once the route is established. The plan to build a new option from Gauteng to the Eastern Cape would split the demand to Durban and offer a better way to move vehicles produced in the EC to other part of the country and the ports.

An investment in a train builder in South Africa was a good move and done in partnership with Alstom to create Gibela which is creating the rolling stock and electric sets that are ready to be deployed once PRASA can get stations operational again.

Another potential positive is the success that Rovos Rail has made offering a good service for tourist travel by rail. The Blue Train is still the premium option, but more operators might opt to offer trips on routes not currently being used by Rovos or the Blue Train.

The real opportunity is for road logistics to partner or run some sections of rail. Unitrans is looking to operate a section of rail to move the kind of freight that is better transported by rail and use its road infrastructure to better deal with loading and final delivery.

The long term solution may be to reduce the need for overhead cables or get rid of them all together. It was the height of the cables that caused the scandal with the trains South Africa bought that were too tall. Removing the cables would not only solve that issue but cable theft too.

The solution is to use hydrogen and a fuel cell in the same way a diesel electric train operates, rather than diesel to run a generator, the hydrogen fuel cell generates electricity, is silent and only produces water as a byproduct.

The range for the current versions is about 600km. That would still need some hydrogen stations to be created along the route for cross country trips but they may be run by solar plants that can create hydrogen from water or simply moved there by train.

It will be some time before the technology and the costs can match the current versions, but as we begin to plan for what the future of South Africa’s rail network will look like it makes sense to consider what the best way to reduce emissions and the risk of having infrastructure damaged.

Alstrom is the first manufacturer of the hydrogen trains and as mentioned earlier they are the principal partner in the Gibela facility in Dunnottar in Gauteng. It may be the place where the continent's largest rail operator finally gets things back on track.

This article first appeared on 702 : Getting the trains back on track

17 November 2021 7:15 PM
Digital technology

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