Olifantsfontein-based road-rail vehicle (RRV) manufacturer RailPro has developed a bimodal vehicle that transports people and goods on road and rail, says MD Ed Magan.
The vehicle, called RailBus, was launched in June.
RailPro seeks to address ‘mobility poverty’ in rural and urban areas in emerging markets. He explains that the key variables that define mobility poverty are affordable access to jobs and markets, access to healthcare, education, and food and water.
“In South Africa, many rural communities are isolated, there is increasing car ownership, congestion, poor road development and maintenance, dependence on minibus taxis, high population densities and underused rail.”
He notes that close to the cities, persons living in extreme poverty pay up to 60% of their income for taxi fares, which he calls “an effective mobility tax”. He adds that thousands of rural dwellers are situated close to existing rail lines.
Further, he comments that high-tariff road taxi routes often run adjacent to empty rail lines in the same areas. The RailBus will allow for exploitation of underused rail routes, offering lower tariffs and vastly improving transit time and predictability, and reduce road congestion, he enthuses.
There are about 9 000 km of largely unused branch lines in the country, which are all narrow Cape gauge width; of these, 4 000 km of track is in usable condition, suitable for the RailBus, he advances.
“While some of these lines are not in optimum condition for conventional railway locomotives 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.”
RailPro developed a patented direct-drive technology that allows a truck to drive on rail, exactly as it does on road. The company uses normal trucks which are retrofitted with a retractable rail undercarriage, which comprises a retractable set of axles and steel rail wheels.
The rail gear is hydraulically activated and the wheels are lowered onto the rail in seconds – the rail axles are powered with RailPro’s direct-drive system, which recently won the South African Bureau of Standards Design Excellence Awards. Magan explains that the truck’s own engine delivers the drive to the rear rail wheels and he enthuses that the vehicle uses less than 50% of the diesel for every kilometre travelled on rail than when on the road.
Moreover, capital and operational costs of the RailBus are significantly cheaper than conventional rolling stock. He points out that conventional carriages hauled by a diesel locomotive cost about R20-million and says the RailBus should be more than ten times cheaper.
Magan further notes that, of crucial importance is the fact that financial institutions are comfortable financing fleets of trucks.
Further, he advances that truck dealerships are already in situ as frontline support and the RRVs can be assembled and maintained in local workshops. “No specialists or specialist parts are needed, and when you remove the rail gear, the vehicle can be sold back into the road market,” he highlights.
The RailBus has attracted significant international interest but Magan is adamant that the RailBus, as an innovative product of a South African company, 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.”
Five RailBuses will be developed and trials will be carried out on a 21-km route between Cullinan and Mamelodi through Rayton. The company is in discussions with potential local partners as well as banks to procure the capital to build the first fleet and the company is also “talking extensively” with State-owned freight utility Transnet. Magan says as soon as the company procures finances, it will take three months from the moment the chassis arrive to the moment the vehicles will roll out of the factory.
The RailBus will also use electronic design engineers Inteletrack’s traffic management technology. The technology is a dual Global System for Mobile communications/Iridium traffic management system relayed to smart phones.
Inteletrack MD Manie Bernard notes that, when the RailBus is running on the railway lines, railway signalling will be needed to authorise the vehicle to drive on the line. He explains that Inteletrack will install a WiFi hotspot in the vehicle, which will connect to the satellite and a smartphone will display where the vehicle is, where it is authorised to move, as well as the speed limit.
The system works with an application that Inteletrack developed. Further, Inteletrack’s technology will also monitor the vehicle when it travels on the road, Bernard adds. Additional data will be collected and monitored through a regular telematics system to monitor the critical parameters of the RailBus, such as whether the rail wheels are up or down, the fuel level, and oil and water temperatures.
Inteletrack’s traffic management technology harnesses satellite and communications technologies, Magan notes, adding that the only way RailPro can develop a ubiquitous passenger service on rail is through new and modern communication systems.
He hopes 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.