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Oct 12, 2012

Combined passenger-freight trains could offer rural lifelines

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Predictable, mixed general-freight and passenger trains can move bulk commodities and people from rural areas to cities and help to develop these regions and reduce urbanisation, says global technology company General Electric South Africa Technologies CEO Gorman Zimba.

“Predictability is crucial for freight and passenger transport by rail. To boost our national exports, we must develop a ‘conveyor-belt’ system of trains that is predictable and consistent. “The same applies to the use of trains for passenger transport,” he notes.

Trains are more efficient at transporting bulk goods, such as commodities and agricultural produce, than trucks. Intermodal transport systems should provide incentives for different transport media, including buses and taxis, to participate in the transportation of people from identified pickup points and should function as predictable feeder routes in broader public transport systems.

“All transport modes have a role to play, but need to compete on a level playing field. For example, taxis took over many routes from badly run trains because they were more predictable and out-competed rail transport. However, mixed-freight and passenger trains into the cities can out-compete taxis in this regard, as they add value to the cities more efficiently,” Zimba explains.

Agricultural produce is commonly transported on the roads of South Africa, but that leads to a significant degradation of the rural road network. Making passenger and freight rail transport efficient holds the promise to uplift city and rural areas, he maintains.

“We must be competitive at a global level and this includes changing our culture, which is individualistic with regard to freight and passenger transport, which, in turn, reduces efficiencies. South Africa should focus on using different transport modes, provided they are cost effective. “This will also enable businesspeople, farmers and entrepreneurs to access cost-competitive transport, aiding development,” he explains.

However, improving the use and effectiveness of South African rail transport will require the control system to be modernised.

General Electric’s control systems can help to reduce problems caused by human error, making rail freight much more reliable and predictable, as well as improving their use, he notes.

“General Electric has the technical expertise to run much longer freight trains, up to 3.5-km long, and [State-owned logistics company] Transnet Freight Rail’s strategy [of moving bulk goods, commodities and long-distance transport onto rail] is the right approach,” avers Zimba.

Zimba spoke in September when General Electric took journalists on the Rovos Rail Pride of Africa steam train as it winded its way through the industrial areas of western Pretoria, where defunct and derelict examples of rail yards and industrial-scale rail use were evident.

“We have the infrastructure and can upgrade the lines with a number of short links to new areas, such as the Waterberg coalfields and the Rustenburg platinum belt. “We should use what we have, which is significant,” he said.

Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
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