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Technology to revive Africa's dying rail sector

April 05,2017 1 comments

You either change with technology or technology will change you. If you embrace the former, then you will most assuredly experience the benefits of technology and comfortably answer the rhetorical question, ‘why must we have technology?’ Embracing the latter,  however, often comes with another package which would mean, you are forcefully taken out of your traditional practice, period. As the best practice in any organization, managed innovation is the key to business survival, be it incremental or rapid. Africa in general, has for long failed to master this critical technique when it comes to the railway transport sector.

It is a continent where colonial-built lines dating back to more than a century old still prevails, with some places still accommodating steam locomotives. Africa’s rail system is at crossroads that all industries face periodically; to adopt or perish (no need to innovate). This is entirely due to failed innovation over time. It is one sector of the economy that needs saving from perishing having weighed the need for it against its drawbacks. A pat in the back to technology, it has a bundle for the innovation conscious managers for the African rail system. Automation coupled with artificial intelligence is here to change the view of the African rail system. It’s a good news that some of the countries in Africa that have already employed automation in their rail lines and are reaping big from it (a case of Algeria, Morocco, and South Africa)

steam engine operational principles

Africa is ushering a new era in its rail usage bringing safer, cheaper and more reliable travel which has always been an imagination to most. It has also adopted intelligent decision making (a sub-discipline of Artificial intelligence). Coupled with the available technology to make autonomous engine trains, the entire African rail network is soon turning driverless and so automated that it will be very efficient to have and manage. Below section describes the technology.

The Autonomous trains operates automatically; computer controlled applying majorly artificial intelligence. They house Automatic Train Operation [ATO], Automatic Train Control [ATC], Automatic Train Protection [ATP] technologies.

features of the autonomous train technologies


Automatic Train Operation is the operational safety enhancement device used to help automate (computer performed act rather than human) operations of trains. It’s used on automated guide -way transit systems that are easier to ensure safety of humans, electing to mitigate the risks associated with failures.

Critical safety part of the autonomous train is catered for by the Automatic Train Control system. ATC systems tend to integrate various signaling technologies; using more deceleration patterns in place of rigid stops encountered by the train. The system increases safety by controlling speed exhibited by the train and separation between the rail lines. ATC offers time improvements. Trains become more exact and timely because of automation. Travel time is thus reduced because the trains travel as close to the civil speed limit as possible and also reduce operation cost in terms of electricity usage.

The ATP on the other hand implements the train protection system. It’s installed to prevent collisions of train with obstacles caused by driver’s failure to observe speed restrictions. The system involves radar telephoto video cameras connected to the engines computer and is run by algorithms. Using AI, ‘line of sight tools’ to collect data are equipped in the system. Using this data, the trains computer reacts instantaneously to an overlying obstacle. A reaction that no engineer can rival. Engineers cannot virtually detect structure infirmities in rail tracks and send out alarms as does sensors (it is the engineers that design and install the systems however). The system also uses target speed indication to warn the driver of likeliness of exceeding the speed profile.

ATO, ATC and ATP synergistically (work together to) maintain the train within tolerance with the combined system adjusting the operation parameters. The big benefit of having these autonomous systems is the safety. The human error element is taken out completely. Train movements and track switches are run from a single control room.

A close look at how the autonomous mass transport is being adopted in Algeria follows. The Algiers Metro has already deployed the use of these computer controlled trains. It’s a one of its own kind in Africa and most African countries are headed in implementing the same. Algiers is the capital of Algeria and the second capital city in Africa. With its ever increasing population there was a need to address the mass transport issue. It was at this helm of technology that Algeria saw it wise to invest In Autonomous train system.

Algiers metro trainsTram4 of Algiers metro

The Algiers Metro System was started in 1980 but downed due to financial constraints mainly caused by fall of oil prices in 1980’s. In 2003 it recommenced again opening its gates to first passengers in 2011.To develop such a project a huge amount of money needs to be injected in and Algeria being an oil-rich state there was no haste to develop such a project.

The project was done in phases. The first phase which composed a 9.2km distance cost 900 million euros [360 million euros for civic works and 540 for purchasing equipment] It has 10 stations built to it,14 six-car trains with each train being 108 meters long and carrying capacity of 1216 persons. The metro system can move 40000 passengers per hour at a speed of 70km/hr.

Everything in the trains are automatically operated from driving to door opening and closing. Second phase of the project which is still under construction was opened this month.

Several African countries are high on their way to establish ATO system. South Africa for instance through Gauteng Signaling Project, aims to replace the obsolete signaling system currently in use in Gauteng Railway Network with an advance electronic signaling system. Gauteng is one of the most populous provinces in South Africa and home to its major cities like Johannesburg and Pretoria. This move is aimed at putting south Africa on the global freight map.

It is however, a dire nauseated act by some African countries to go against technology. While we are aiming for advanced products some are aiming for the average. We are looking forward to saving the environment from carbon emissions (by embracing electric trans) yet some governments are still going for the old, outdated diesel engine trains (often claiming to have spent an equivalent to that spent on their electric counterparts). A look at the above first photo smells guilt for the Kenyan government. 


Nixon Ouko

Ignorance is no defence.Live like you'll die tommorrow but learn like you'll live forever.

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