Opinion

SA lacks high-speed transport,Monorails could put us on track for the future

By Aubrey Lekwane


SA’s lack of high-speed transportation for people and products negatively affects the environment and our roads. It’s time for change, writes Aubrey Lekwane

Most of us love cities. As the hubs of commerce and culture, cities naturally attract people.

Today, more than 50% of the world’s population lives in or around a city. By 2050, this number is expected to reach 70%.

The implications are profound. Cities already generate 70% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. Imagine their impact on climate change by 2050.

Tomorrow’s smart cities will redefine sustainability and liveability.

Transportation systems that are efficient, environmentally friendly and move hundreds to thousands of people quickly, comfortably and affordably to their destinations will be a defining feature of many new “ecocities”.

Today, the food that ends up on our plates, the fuel that powers our cars, the smartphones we use to make calls or access the internet, the clothes we wear and the glasses we use to drink beverages were produced in factories or refineries, kept in storage facilities and moved from one place to other through various modes of transport to eventually arrive in our hands for consumption.

Without decent transport and rail infrastructure in South Africa, this coordinated movement of goods and products along the value chain would not be possible.

Therefore, it is widely accepted that an advanced and integrated transport network is the backbone of a modern industrial economy – one that enables a country to attract inward investment and to be globally competitive in international trade.

Unlike many countries, South Africa is heavily dependent on land surface transportation to move goods and people because it does not have inland waterways.

Due to chronic underinvestment in railway infrastructure in our country dating back to the mid-1980s, the bulk of freight today is moved by road – roughly 88.8% of South African freight is moved by road and only 11.2% by rail.

It is for this reason that rail freight infrastructure requires a massive upgrade if it is to attract freight clients.

South Africa has ambitious plans to invest in rail transport to move freight and people by trains instead of trucks, cars, buses and minibus taxis, which dominate passenger transportation today.

The country has about 150 000 minibus taxis, which carry about 15 million passengers daily to and from work, and to far-flung areas around the country.

In the past, trains provided inner-city and intercity transportation to many ordinary South Africans.

If there is one thing we learnt from the introduction of the Gautrain, the high-speed passenger train service connecting OR Tambo International Airport and Pretoria, just before the soccer World Cup in 2010, it is that South Africans are hungry for safe, reliable and efficient trains.

Gautrain has been well received by the public, as well as local and international visitors.

A closer look at the land surface transportation figures outlined above indicates that South Africa’s roads face never-ending repair work because the trucks that move our goods are exceptionally heavy.

Increasing congestion and increasing fuel prices are adding to an already dire situation, so there is an urgent need to reinvest in railway infrastructure (new trains to the replace old fleet, hi-tech signalling systems and rail line maintenance) to ease road congestion – a move that could also boost railway-related manufacturing and turn our country into a global rail manufacturing hub.

As an executive working for Bombardier Transportation, we welcome the South African government’s plan to spend R288 billion on upgrading the transport network over the next three years.

These investments in freight and passenger railway infrastructure would present South Africa with a unique opportunity to catch up with advanced countries from a technology and skills perspective, which is needed to operate and maintain the new infrastructure, and possibly leapfrog into producing modern trains for Africa and the rest of the world.

We are a vehicle-producing nation and there is no reason we can’t replicate this capability to produce trains designed to operate in our specific environment.

While government is moving ahead with plans to modernise passenger railway transportation, I believe that millions of our people could benefit if innovative products such as a monorail system were added to our country’s transportation mix to act as feeder lines into the main line or Gautrain system, ensuring last-mile connectivity for the citizens of South Africa.

Monorails could be deployed in densely populated areas like townships, helping thousands of people to connect with important economic hubs and to reduce congestion on our roads.

In a densely populated city region like Gauteng, monorails could easily move people in and out of townships – where approximately 80% of the province’s 14.7 million people live – and link them to nodes of economic opportunities where offices, factories, mines, stadiums, airports and shopping malls are situated.

Monorails are safe and reliable, and are a perfect answer to climate change and global warming because they emit low levels of carbon and require less space.

Beyond their safety and reliability, these trains are aesthetically beautiful to look at because their tracks are suspended above road traffic.

Even though monorails were introduced in the 1960s, a curious onlooker would be forgiven for thinking that they were looking at a futuristic train snaking around skyscrapers and moving above traffic in a manner that captures the imagination.

If monorails were to be introduced in Johannesburg, they would immediately transform the city’s skyline and catapult its status as it became a city that was truly modern.

The added bonus would be rising property prices along its routes.

Right now, monorails are used in South Africa on a limited basis for the pleasure of tourists in places like Sun City and Nasrec.

This service could be extended to an ordinary South African city dweller.

In recent years, monorails, people movers and light rail vehicles such as trams have been mooted for Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, but these projects never took off.

It’s time to bring these projects back on to our transportation agenda.

Governments in the region also want to create a high-speed network and we feel that, in the next couple of years, there will be more projects and tenders for high-speed rail infrastructure due to the fact that Africa is a vast continent and requires connectivity that is safer and faster, and supports massive economic growth.

Lekwane is the managing director of Bombardier SA

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