Modular system rethinks rail
A new aboveground steel rail system could revolutionise transportation for the developing world. Its minor physical footprint will mean it is safer for wildlife and better for the environment than traditional road and rail
An elegant and efficient answer to roadway gridlock, and expensive rail systems, is being constructed in rural South Africa, offering an alternative solution for the mass transit needs of the 21st century. Fractional Rapid Transit (FRT) is an automated, lightweight, suspended, super-strong, steel track for transporting freight and people. This system is called ‘fractional’ because it can transport large amounts of people or cargo through many short, frequent trips.
The first customer, IPC Coal, is installing FRT at its Elandspruit mine, about 100 kilometres east of the South African city of Pretoria. The track is planned to be operational from April 2017 and it will transport 355,600 tonnes of coal per month. For such a mining facility, this freight version of FRT promises cheaper coal transportation at a third of the cost of using trucks.
The [Fractional Rapid Transit] FRT boasts lower installation costs than road or rail
The FRT boasts lower installation costs than road or rail at only US$2 million per kilometre of track suspended on steel pillars seven metres tall or more. After installation, energy costs are very low because of the lightweight components, making the entire operation highly cost effective both in terms of capital and operation costs.
Andries Louw, Head of Innovation at the South African companies developing FRT, Milotek for mines and Podcars Africa for people, says: “We’re convinced that this technology will become the railway of the future. [Historically] every time you built a railway system you could reach new areas at a fairly low cost, but nowadays it is not affordable.”
With FRT, the freight or people-carrying pods are controlled and propelled by an on-board control box and motor that drives wheels gripping the track. The way the wheels grip the track allows a pod to cope with inclines and sloping tracks, and enables a simple and safe braking system. Steel wheels on a steel track makes for the lowest possible rolling resistance, which keeps maintenance to a minimum.
Building the future
In 2015 and 2016, Louw’s companies tested a one kilometre track located north west of Pretoria, transporting 10 tonne loads at speeds of up to 30 kilometres per hour. While the larger Elandspruit mine installation is being advanced, Louw has been in discussion with the University of Pretoria on the possible construction of a Podcars Africa track around its campus next year. He has also had talks with authorities at the South African city of Cape Town, which Louw says is the most congested in Africa, and other cities have also been contacted.
“This [FRT] will be the African version of metro systems running on top of existing infrastructure”
“There aren’t any underground metro systems in Africa, it’s just unaffordable. This [FRT] will be the African version of metro systems running on top of existing infrastructure,” he says. Louw adds that the raised track will allow it to cross rivers, railways and areas where roaming herds are an issue. “Our system has huge capacity and it is affordable. And it doesn’t spoil the environment; you can still use the land below [for livestock grazing or agriculture].”
The need for reliable transportation such as FRT in developing economies is acute. Paved roads occupy a small proportion of urban land in Africa and are largely non-existent beyond city centres, according to think tank World Resources Institute (WRI). The WRI told a United Nations meeting in May 2016 that developing countries’ urban areas are expected to expand by up to six fold by 2050. That urban sprawl presents major challenges for local transportation which FRT can help to meet.
City life enhanced
Around a city, Podcars Africa’s concept for stations are economical designs that sit above pavements, use solar power, have elevators for disabled access and would be found every 200 metres. Using their mobile phone, a passenger is able to order a pod, which weighs up to three-tonnes and can sit six to eight people. “It’s fully automated, every unit runs by itself on a ‘job card’ system. The ‘job card’ gives route and speed [information]. When it completes its [route], it asks for another,” explains Louw.
“If it wasn’t for steel, it would be physically impossible to get the strength out of the small lightweight structures that we’ve got”
“If it wasn’t for steel, it would be physically impossible to get the strength out of the small lightweight structures that we’ve got,” says Louw. The pillars are mild, thin steel sheets bent and folded into the high stiffness Solomon Knot Cross Beam shape required. This shape enables the pillar’s metal to bond with the concrete that is then poured into the beam. The concrete avoids the need for welds or bolts. Louw adds that this steel, concrete design makes the track strong, affordable and easy to assemble. The track design also inhibits metal theft, which is common in Africa.
Louw describes FRT as “a Meccano set”, and says the company could rent out tracks before disassembling and retrieving them at the end of the contract. “It’s going to be a fraction of the cost [of rail or road], and will allow mass transit from everywhere in the city to anywhere else. When you apply it to developing countries and you can start transporting people for less than a dollar a day, we believe it will be the mass transit system of the developing world.”