Train-ing for tomorrow

Train-ing for tomorrow

It’s no secret; Africa is no longer the “Dark Continent” as it houses countries that feature some impressive economic expansion, but the “dark ages” did leave their mark … While Africa focuses on getting its rail transport back on track, the developed world is looking at ticketless travel, automated freight transport, maintenance drones and faster driverless trains by 2050.

At the turn of the century, Africa was still referred to as the hopeless continent, but this has changed drastically over the past decade. Unprecedented growth rates are a dime a dozen.

Stellar examples can be found in sub-Saharan Africa, as the World Bank points out: “The region’s growth prospects remain favourable despite emerging challenges, such as weaker commodity prices and tighter global financial conditions. During the period from 1995 to 2013, the region performed strongly, with an average annual gross domestic product growth rate of 4,5 percent.”

The organisation adds that there are variations in economic performance across different groups of countries. “Within the ‘resource-rich’ group, the gap in growth between oil and non-oil countries has narrowed. At the same time, several countries within the ‘non-resource-rich’ group, such as Ethiopia, Mozambique and Rwanda, have achieved sustained high growth rates for over a decade.”

South Africa is, however, one of a few countries with a growth rate lagging behind the levels achieved before the start of the global crisis. This ties in perfectly with what we reported in The transporter’s guide to Africa in June 2013 … Here Russell Lamberti, chief strategist at ETM Analytics – an independent consulting firm in Johannesburg – states that South Africa’s role as the gateway to the continent is being challenged.

“There is this perception that South Africa is the gateway to Africa for investors, but I don’t think that is true at all – in the modern world you can fly to Lagos or Nairobi, get all the information you need on the ground there, and do business,” he notes.

He adds that there are exciting developments taking place in eastern and western Africa while South Africa and the southern African region are at risk of being left behind. “As it stands, South Africa is the most well-capitalised and sophisticated economy on the continent – with great institutions, a great banking sector and some great interest rates. We don’t need to be told that South Africa is a more developed place than the Democratic Republic of Congo or Ghana, but the rest of the continent is changing more rapidly in terms of dynamism.”

All hope isn’t lost, however. We southerners are doing our part – especially when it comes to railway development, with “billions” making the headlines. One example is the Trans-Kalahari Railway project, a 1 500 km heavy-railway line estimated at N$100 billion (R100 billion) that will link Botswana’s coalfields with the existing railhead at Gobabis in Namibia and, thus, Walvis Bay.

Another is the R51-billion deal that the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) and Gibela Rail Transportation – a joint venture led by Alstom and co-owned by local shareholders Ubumbano Rail and New Africa Rail – have for the supply of 600 commuter trains (3 600 coaches) over the next ten years.

This is but the tip of the iceberg of things to come, however, if you look at what the developed world has in mind … Arup – an independent global consultancy providing professional services in management,
planning, design and engineering – has revealed a vision of the future of rail travel in light of trends such as urban population growth, climate change and emerging technologies.

Future of Rail 2050 foresees predictive maintenance of rail lines by robot drones; driverless trains travelling safely at high speed; freight delivered automatically to its destination; and smart technology able to interface with mobile and wearable devices to improve passenger experience and enable ticketless travel.

The report is based on developments from current Arup rail projects, as well as insight from Arup’s Foresight + Research + Innovation team (a multi-disciplinary group of researchers, scientists, academics, strategists and consultants) and global contributors.

The company has been involved in many of the world’s high-speed rail, metro and driverless train projects; including High Speed 1 (which connects the international high-speed routes between London and Paris and London and Brussels), the Heathrow Personal Rapid Transit system in the United Kingdom, Cityringen Metro in Copenhagen, as well as the creation of Beijing South Railway Station and the redevelopment of St Pancras International Station.

With the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, the report looks at future construction and maintenance techniques to reduce travel delays and shape railway resilience.

It predicts intelligent robots building new (and retrofitting old) rail infrastructure. Swarm robotics, a theory based on swarm behaviour among ant and bee colonies, could see small robots working collaboratively on major railway repair and structural testing. Monitoring drones would enable rail operators to perform advanced maintenance on tracks, eradicating lengthy journey delays and line closures.

To further increase efficiency and speed of travel, Future of Rail 2050 suggests that automated systems will optimise the running time of passenger trains and increase the reliability and safety of the network.

Driverless trains, for example, would be in constant communication with one another with sensors embedded in rail infrastructure; travelling in close succession and responding in real time to their location on a given track.

On the freight side of things, Arup states that this activity is due to increase globally by up to 250 percent by 2050. The report foresees dedicated elevated platforms and underground pipelines to transport goods, freeing up rail and highway infrastructure for passenger travel.

Freight pipelines would, according to Future of Rail 2050, use intelligent aerodynamic pods and embedded sensors to provide an energy efficient and low-maintenance method of delivering goods in heavily populated urban areas.

However, even if things are freed up for commuters, intermodal transportation is the name of the game when it comes to a smooth and convenient passenger experience. Rail needs to be fully integrated with other modes of transport … Arup says that greater internet connectivity will provide passengers with accurate, real-time updates on train times and connections to other transport modes, complete with optimum pricing.

Ticketless technology will also remove gate lines in stations. Authorisation to travel will be universal and payment processed automatically when the journey is taken, allowing a seamless connection between various modes of transport.

Future of Rail 2050 points out that this could be achieved through interoperable electronic passes (valid for trains, businesses, car sharing schemes and bicycles) or through personal accounts, which would authorise travel and automatically process payment – removing congestion at ticket barriers and eliminating unauthorised travel.

“The global urban population is growing rapidly and by 2050, around 75 percent of the world’s population will live in cities,” says Colin Stewart, Global Rail Leader at Arup. “This places huge pressure on transport infrastructure and resources, but also creates a significant opportunity for rail, which relies on passenger density to function most effectively.”

He adds: “The challenge will lie in juggling the responsibility of providing reliable travel for millions while simultaneously tailoring each journey for the individual.”

Stewart concludes: “However, by rapidly developing technology and taking bold steps to overcome capacity and cost challenges, through maximising efficiencies, the rail renaissance can deliver a future where rail is the backbone of our travel system, linking major urban hubs and feeding into multi-modal transport networks for the benefit of the passenger.”

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