High Volume Transport

Vital transport research to ensure accessible, affordable and climate friendly transport for all.

The Future of Rail in Africa with Professor Clive Roberts

In the second episode of season 4, we talk to Professor Clive Roberts of the University of Birmingham about all things rail. Railways have the potential to greatly reduce emissions compared to other land transport modes. We talk about the current state of rail in Africa, the challenges of modernising rail infrastructure, as well as the opportunities for innovation and new technologies such as hydrogen-powered rail.

Below is an excerpt of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Holger Dalkmann

So let’s move into considering low income countries in sub-Saharan Africa where your recent work is focused. To what extent is rail used at the moment? So give us a little bit of your insight about the state of rail infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa.

Clive Roberts

So across Africa, there has been a history of particularly freight movements by rail. But many of the railways perhaps date from maybe 70, 80 years old, and some have come out of use.

So we’ve been working as part of the High Volume Transport Programme on really looking to see what’s next for rail in sub-Saharan Africa. What can be done to enable and ensure that the next developments that occur are low carbon zero carbon developments, potentially leapfrogging other technologies that we might see in other places in the world, and really just trying to understand the requirements for those particular countries.

So there’s some really interesting findings from our work, I think. So in Europe and many other countries around the world, the obvious route to decarbonisation is electrification. So in the UK, where I’m based, our mainline railways, where we haven’t got electrification, we’re really pushing for electrification to occur. But there’s some challenges with electrification. Electrification is expensive. In Europe, we’re talking about $2 million, something like that per kilometre. India is doing it probably an awful lot cheaper than that, but there’s still a real cost to electrification and because of that cost of electrification, unless you’re seeing a train, if you’re standing on the side of the railway and you’re seeing a train go past every ten or 15 minutes, you’re probably in the right sort of place for a business case for electrifying. If you’re standing on the side of a railway and you’re seeing a train every few hours. Electrification isn’t the right answer from the cost point of view.

And then just coupled with that, in many African countries, the actual power generation capability just isn’t there to provide for a railway. So Africa has some real challenges, including also actually the security of some of the infrastructure. So looking at independently powered railways is really key and that’s been the focus of our studies. What kind of future power might we put to replace the existing diesel fleets into the future that provide us a decarbonised solution going forward?


So is it more about using the existing infrastructure or is it about issues and making them more clean? Or is it more towards building the new infrastructure? What’s currently happening?


I guess it really depends. There’s been an awful lot of foreign investment in building railways in Africa. Particular countries like Kenya are building huge amounts of railways. I was in Tanzania not so long ago, and they’ve just about to open a big new railway line.

But from a carbon point of view, that’s that’s challenging in as much as, you know, building a railway that is low carbon is challenging from an infrastructure point of view and it’s in its own right. And actually there are quite a lot of existing railways that actually need regeneration. So I think the solution for Africa is a mix of the two.

And also, as I said, moving towards this standardised approach to allow interoperability from one country to the next. There are actually very few through country routes, which means that those freight corridors that you’d want to see and perhaps expect to see very much, the African Union really wants to get those interoperable, seamless corridors across countries aren’t being developed. So some standardised approach that either uses some of the existing infrastructure or new infrastructure or mix of the two is the solution. In terms of the rolling stock.

And the primary focus of our studies recently have been on rolling stock and we’ve been looking at whether and what do you do with diesel locomotives. So in railways, we talk about rolling stock, which really means the locomotive and the carriages of the wagons that make up the train. And that then is really important in terms of the fundamental part of a railway system.

So one challenge with railways and particularly rolling stock is that if you buy a locomotive today, it probably takes you about five years before you get it delivered. So if I began to specify a locomotive today, I would perhaps hope it would be arriving somewhere five, five years later, ready to use. And then I’d probably expect to get 40 or 45 years of life out of that locomotive. So that means that if we were to start thinking about procuring something today, we’d be looking through it, retiring out of service in 2073. That’s quite a long time away, particularly to be sort of considering what diesel fuel, both availability cost and of course, and continued emissions over that time.

So what we’ve been looking at is what are the alternative technologies for procuring and rolling stock, procuring a locomotive today that would sustain into that future? And equally, what are the alternatives for actually retrofitting and changing mid-life? So generally, locomotives are overhauled at mid-life about 20 years through their life. Can we actually swap out diesel engines, high-polluting diesel engines of that time and move to something different?