Anybody who has ever been trapped sweatily between stations during a midsummer rush hour – cable theft again! – is unlikely to feel anything but ugly thoughts when talk turns to the romance of railroads. Ditto anyone who has traipsed through a dusty, smelly, coalspecked railyard.
Still… there’s something undeniably evocative about the keening wail of the passing long-distance express cruising through the night, the gentle rocking motion as the wheel flanges kiss the rails in a long sweeping bend, even the urgent clatter of the metro commuter as it criss-crosses multiple points.
But never mind romance, there’s something undeniably practical about rail. It’s a vital part of the nation’s transport infrastructure. It can move massive loads – freight, people, everything. After all, South Africa can boast the biggest and best rail network on the continent.
That’s why, this month, Popular Mechanics brings you the story of what’s shaping up to be a revolution in train travel in this country. It starts with a new-era homegrown locomotive and, if all goes according to plan, continues with a revitalising of rolling stock and network, from stations to the rails our trains run on.
The reality: rail isn’t what it used to be. As roads have improved and alternatives – car, bus and plane – have developed, so passenger use of the rail network, particularly the long-distance kind, has dropped off. Metro areas are looking to alternatives such as bus rapid transit. Deregulation diverted freight to our roads, too. It’s the opposite to what has happened in more developed areas such as Europe, where the convenience of rail has in some cases forced the closure of air routes.
Here’s the thing: South Africa has 20 000 kilometres of track. That’s a priceless asset. Sadly, only half of it is in regular use. Nearly a third of the total sees little or no use and many’s the sad, derelict stations and train stop where the only activity is sighing winds and scuttling beetles. It’s not quite the vision of the man ironically, much in the news for other reasons lately, Cecil John Rhodes: “A railway from Cape to Cairo”.
But we’re due for a change.
Clickety click. Clickety clack. There’s a rail revolution coming your way.
- Planning has started on the 2015 edition of Popular Mechanics FutureTech. At this stage, the intention is to present FutureTech at this year’s Johannesburg International Motor Show. In the lead-up to that, PM will be looking to host smaller “warm-up” events showcasing cutting-edge science and tech. Keep an eye on popularmechanics.co.za as well as our social media platforms – including Facebook and Twitter – for updates on what is sure to be once again a must-see event for sci-tech fans.
- Finally, our apologies for not being able to bring you our in-depth investigation into the whys and hows of fire disasters that was promised last month. The wheels of investigative justice grind slow and exceedingly small, it seems.