RAIL stands to play a greater role in South Africa’s integrated transportation system in the near future, says expertise leader: rail and mass transit at leading consulting engineering and infrastructure advisory firm Zutari, David Hewson.
Rail transit systems operating in urban metros, include light rail systems such as trams/light rail, and metro rail systems such as Gautrain. These systems transport a large number of passengers quickly and reliably to reduce congestion on roads and highways, with added environmental benefits due to reduced emissions. Long-distance rail connects cities and regions with high-speed trains, often with reduced travel times compared to road or air travel for intermediate distances.
Freight rail systems transport large volumes of freight over long distances. Carrying a variety of goods and being more fuel-efficient than trucks, rail plays a significant role in the freight logistics supply chain, connecting ports, warehouses, manufacturing facilities, and distribution centres. This is particularly important in the transport of bulk mineral commodities such as coal, iron ore, and manganese.
At present, there is a major focus on the existing state of the rail freight and passenger rail services in South Africa. “How we go forward and reach a point where we can use all our rail services optimally within the broader context of economic and social development is the question we are grappling with now,” says Hewson.
Zutari’s rail unit has a multidisciplinary focus and covers the broad spectrum of rail engineering. A major local project it is working on at present is constructing a new 30 t axle load line from Black Rock to Hotazel in the Northern Cape. Within sub-Saharan Africa, the unit has just completed projects in Ghana and Gabon and is busy with the Matola terminal expansion in Mozambique.
“Matola is a key development for us as it showcases our integrated design and operational expertise,” says Hewson. It is a multidisciplinary project that also encompasses Zutari’s capabilities in ports and harbours as well as bulk materials handling. “We are fortunate in having a mix of projects in Africa from early concept studies all the way through to construction.”
The unit is also undertaking international rail design work in New Zealand and Australia, including the advancement of systems design, sustainability, and energy efficiency within the rail space. This includes a study for mining company BHP Billiton into the use of battery solutions for its locomotive fleet and the operational strategy for its Western Australian network.
“Zutari’s multidisciplinary design approach and extensive in-house skills base set us apart. We can undertake larger, more involved, and integrated developments, which is the project space where many of the future rail solutions will exist,” adds Hewson.
Looking to the future, Hewson points to the necessity of the revival of passenger rail in South Africa as a major mode of transportation within urban areas. He notes the advances that the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) has made since Covid-19 to rebuild infrastructure, with tenders out at present for additional work to reconstitute the network and associated train services. “Rail links are an integral part of the bigger transport picture in all major modern cities.” In a South African context, Hewson points to the successful Gautrain project.
“It is working every day and fulfilling an important function as part of the development of our future transport mix. An integrated approach refers not only to the urban, but also the social context, where there is a major benefit to reduce congestion and be more environmentally friendly. Looking at the first phase of the Gautrain, it is gratifying to see a mega-project in South Africa implemented in the rail space. I am certainly hopeful there will be an expansion of that network,” says Hewson.
The Zutari rail unit favours an integrated approach that sets a socioeconomic framework for all its projects. “Beyond just the purely technical aspects, it is looking at innovation on the digital side, inclusive problem solving, sustainability, resilience, communication, and community involvement. It is important to consider the viewpoint of both the client, end-users, and the local communities affected.
“How do all stakeholders stand to benefit from the project? How do they gain meaningful input? Such a consultative take on co-creating an engineered impact for all is only possible by taking the bigger picture into account and adopting a multidisciplinary approach,” concludes Hewson.