South Africa Renews Rail in Push to Reduce Congestion


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By Gail Jennings at Green Futures

While the city highways are clogged with single passenger cars and 4x4s, the average South African must walk, stand or sit on someone’s lap for hours to get to work. But change is coming down the line – literally.

Mandla Nyati’s mission is to get more people to ride bicycles. From his cold, leaky shipping-container store in a poor Cape Town township, he represents a local bicycle-advocacy group and sells refurbished commuter models donated by European charities. Almost every week I see his customer base grow, counting the numbers of riders pedalling past me as I cycle to my office in the opposite direction. The minibus taxi fare for the 10km round trip to the city centre costs around R200 ($25.80) a week; a third-hand Dutch bike, around R300 ($38.70).

Nyati’s other mission is to save enough money to buy his own car…

And herein lies South Africa’s sustainable transport challenge. The country has an enviable modal split between public and private transport – but how do we keep it that way while making transport options greener, more efficient and more equitable?

Sixty per cent of South Africans don’t own private cars. They either walk or cycle to work – often an hour each way – or use public transport to travel the long distances created by sprawling, spatially segregated cities. The informal minibus-taxi industry takes the lion’s share; the regulated rail and bus systems the rest. Public transport is, for the most part, unsafe, overcrowded, unreliable, expensive and run by operators who will at times (sometimes literally) kill their competition in order to keep their routes and licences.

The vast majority use it because they have no other choice. They can’t afford the transport, public or private, that they’d prefer. Like Nyati, most commuters dream of owning their own vehicle. No matter how rusty, beaten up and unroadworthy a car might be, having your own offers the door-to-door flexibility that public transport does not. The magic number is R3,500 (about $452) – the monthly income at which low-income earners start putting out the word that they’re looking for a used car.

Of course, it’s barely thinkable that established private car users would give up their air-conditioned cocoons for a train or bus in which both your personal safety and that of your laptop are at risk.

Or is it?

South African policy makers are starting to respond to the challenge, looking both to provide transport to those without (in line with access rights enshrined in the country’s constitution), and to make it more sustainable. That means improving facilities for walkers and cyclists, and also boosting public transport. The aim is to give middle income earners a reason to leave their cars at home, and the lower earners a reason to hold off buying that car in the first place.

The first bold plan was Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Its aim: to replace a swathe of inefficient bus services, along with ‘informal’ sedan and minibus taxi operations. It was supposed to be in place in time for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, but while potential users can’t wait, the project has been stalled by unresolved ‘stakeholder engagement conflicts’. In other words, by replacing a lot of informal transport, the proposed BRT would make many livelihoods redundant.

So for now the focus is on metropolitan rail. In late 2007, commuter rail authority Metrorail introduced the Khayelitsha Express, a luxury fast train between the enormous low-income township to the east of Cape Town and the central city. The 300-seater train revolutionised the travel experience for many thousands of commuters, and cut journey times by about 30%. By offering security, free refreshments and newspapers, and a laptop workstation with power points and Wi-Fi, it even appealed to car-owning middle class commuters.

Nobesuthu Sihawu works as a secretary at Parliament, and owns a house close to Mandalay Station. These days, she leaves her car at home or at the secure park station in Khayelitsha, and jumps on the Express. “It means I save about R900 ($120) per month. And now I don’t have to go through the stress of negotiating my way through heavy traffic in the morning.”

So successful was the Express that Metrorail has now introduced similar services linking Johannesburg with Tshwane and Soweto, and one joining Strand, a large town east of Cape Town, with the city centre.

It all represents a surprising rebirth for rail in a country whose once-flourishing train network has more kilometres of decommissioned lines than the rest of Africa has in use. But there’s no doubting its growing popularity. Many fans of the new train services say that until the Metro Expresses, there hadn’t been any public transport worth taking.

Coming up next is the Gautrain Rapid Rail Link between the capital Tshwane, Johannesburg’s international airport and the city itself. Set to launch in June 2010, it will bring journey times between the airport and Sandton Station in the city’s business hub down to 15 minutes. Passengers will be able to transfer easily to other modes, such as taxis, trains and, when it eventually takes to the streets, the BRT. And when that happens, the likes of Nyati and his customers will be able to extend their travel distances by taking their bikes on the bus.

All electric – all South AfricanAmerica, Europe and Japan may dominate the carbon intensive automotive industry, but South Africa is leading the way in the development of an all-electric commercial vehicle.

The Joule is a five-seater battery-powered urban hatchback. Developed by tech start-up Optimal Energy, it is also the first car of any kind to be entirely designed and built in South Africa. Debuting at the Paris motor show in October 2008, it was praised not only for its environmentally friendly engineering but also for its elegance.

Part of its appeal lies in two large-cell lithium ion battery packs, which will take it from zero to 50km/h in a zippy 4.8 seconds. They deliver a top speed of 135km/h and a range of 400km, with zero carbon emissions at point of use. The car can be charged using a normal 220-volt home outlet, with each 200km battery pack taking approximately seven hours to charge.

For those worried about running out of juice, says Sales and Marketing Director Diana Blake, the Joule will have a diagnostics system tracking how much energy remains – and how far that willget the car. Pre-charged batteries will be available from service centres. The company is also planning 24/7 roadside assistance in the urban centres of Gauteng, Cape Town and Durban.

So what about the price? The Joule is forecast to cost around R190,000 ($24,000) – but should save up to 90% on fuel expenses, compared to a petrol or diesel car in the same price category. With a 50-litre tank of petrol currently costing close to R400 ($50), that would be a massive saving. Maintenance and servicing should also be half the price of conventional cars, thanks to a simpler design and fewer parts.

With electric cars experiencing a huge degree of interest worldwide, work on Joule is forging ahead. A few hundred models are set to be showing off on South African roads in time for the 2010 World Cup. Optimal Energy intends to expand production to 15,000 models on the showroom floor by 2012, and then leap to manufacturing 50,000 the following year.

It hasn’t all been a smooth cruise, though. CEO Kobus Meiring says that, when the idea of an electric car dawned on him in 2004, development funding was hard to come by. But he persisted, and eventually managed to garner R70 million ($9.3 million) from the Department of Science and Technology’s Innovation Fund and the Industrial Development Corporation.

Optimal Energy’s main aim, says Brand Manager Myles Hoppe, is to move the country’s automotive industry away from being third-party manufacturers of global brands, to producing a truly South African high-end product. In the process, he says, it should create about 6,000 direct and indirect jobs.

This article originally appeared in Green Futures, the magazine of independent sustainability experts Forum for the Future, on December 10th 2009. 

Image courtesy of Mark & Gideon on flickr

  • OSlOlSO

    Yeah, I’ve been stuck for 40 minutes on one of those ±53 year old Metrorail trains before. People got restless and eventually just forced doors open en jumped onto the tracks. 

    SO glad SA is finally realizing the power of Rail (and other forms of integrated transport).