A new and cheap transport system

A new option for transporting South Africa’s disadvantaged commuters who might pay up to 60% of their salaries commuting to work is fast becoming a reality with the introduction of the RailPro RailBus which was launched in Johannesburg today.

It is a cost-effective bimodal Road Rail Vehicle (RRV) bus that can transport people on rail or road at up to half the cost in fuel terms than a conventional diesel bus.

The secret to its economy lies in RailPro’s patented direct drive system which recently won the SABS design excellence award. Designed by South African engineers, the drive system has an extended drive shaft which powers the retractable rail wheels from the bus’s own engine, allowing up to 6km per litre of diesel when on rail.  This saving, due to less friction of steel rail wheels on steel rails, can ideally be passed onto the consumer thereby reducing mobility poverty. RailBus offers a significant saving on fuel compared to a road bus, and a massive saving compared to a locomotive.

Professor Antonio Estache, Professor of Economics at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles, and author of “Infrastructure and the Poor in Sub-Saharan Africa”, has called RailPro’s invention a “technically and socially smart idea”.

With a clear line of sight of demand, a global automotive company would like to manufacture the RailBus at their  South African plant and support the venture through their distribution network already in place across the SADC region.

The launch of the project comes hot on the heels of a new report published by the World Bank that cites five “binding constraints” or causes of poverty and inequality – including limited or expensive connectivity and under-serviced historically disadvantaged settlements.  The report concluded that “strengthening transport connectivity, integrating transport planning and land use, improving intermodal transport, … are important to overcome the legacy of spatial exclusion, and reduce transportation costs and travel time for the poor”.

CEO of RailPro, Ed Magan, says the grant that RailPro won along with a prestigious innovation award from the SAB Foundation, was being used to convert buses into cheap and convenient transport, primarily for rural people.  He has his eyes on thousands of kilometres of virtually disused railway branch lines that were previously used to transport goods and people in rural areas to the main commercial centres.

Magan says, “There are roughly 9000 kilometres of largely unused branch lines in South Africa, which are all narrow Cape gauge width. Of these, 4000 km of track is in usable condition, suitable for the RailBus.

“These largely underutilised rail lines would allow for easier  and safer transportation of rural commuters, including school children from their villages to the local towns and commercial centres.  Such a facility could also assist rural farmers to get their products to market faster and in a cost-effective manner”, Magan said.

“While some of these lines are not in optimum condition for conventional railway engines and carriages, the RailBus is a light vehicle, with a robust suspension system, designed and well suited to adapting to varying conditions, both on and off rail”, he said.

Magan is firm in his belief that the RailBus makes economic sense. “Conventional carriages hauled by a diesel locomotive costs in the region of at least R20m. The RailBus is built on a normal 8-tonne truck, vastly cheaper, with maintenance costs a fraction of those required for a locomotive, whilst consuming over 30 times less fuel per kilometre than a locomotive pulling passenger wagons. And  of cruicial importance is the fact that financial institutions are comfortable financing fleets of trucks.

“The fact that the RailBus can mount and dismount the railway tracks means that commuters can board the bus at a conventional bus terminus before mounting the rails and driving more directly to its destination”, he said.

Magan is, however, hoping that in the future, individual metros or local government, responsible for urban passenger transport, will look at adopting the RailBus to supplement their current public transport offerings.

The RailBus has attracted a lot of international interest, but Magan is adamant that the RailBus is the innovative product of a South African company and should be manufactured in South Africa.  “We are trying to create South African jobs and ultimately be able to export Railbus internationally, thereby creating valuable export revenue for the country”, said Magan.

In 2017 the Department of Transport (DOT) commissioned Ernst and Young to carry out a strategic review of the socio- economic-impact of branch lines.  Published last year, the DOT is reportedly fully aware of where the RailBus can be deployed, highlighting five critically important branch lines, that with conventional locomotive offerings made passenger transport unaffordable.

Additionally, a draft white paper published last year by the Department of Transport says that urban commuters are increasingly challenged by road congestion  and safety issues and that these, plus long travel times, negatively impacts on economic growth and commuter’s quality of life.

An independent railway consultant said this week that using the branch line network was “really worthwhile” as it would contribute vastly to community development. “If the community relied on the railway tracks for passenger and possibly freight transport of their agricultural produce to market, they would most likely take ownership of the line and prevent it being vandalised”.

He said another benefit of the RailBus was because of its bimodal nature, it could transport people directly from their villages before driving onto the railway tracks and taking them to the nearest town, quicker and cheaper than if they were using road transport.

“The RailPro RailBus could offer a reduced carbon footprint and create local jobs for the restoring and maintaining of branch lines,” he said. The RailBus might also create tourism opportunities in areas of great natural beauty such as the Great Kei River Pass, and coastal drives”, Magan said..

The RailBus will be operated using accepted safety mechanisms such as existing traffic control systems on the rail line, speed limitation, proximity radar and telematic controls. With the advent of “internet of things” technologies, these systems are advancing rapidly, and Magan cited another world-leading technology out of South Africa, Inteletrack, who have developed a dual GSM/Iridium traffic management system relayed to smart-phones that is already successfully implemented in Zimbabwe and Zambia.

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