A group of 20 South African teenagers have built their country’s first fully solar-powered train. The students of Soshanguve Technical School were led to undertake this remarkable innovation after watching their parents’ struggle to use trains for daily commutes over the years, owing to load shedding and cable thefts.
Trains are the cheapest mode of transport in the country, making it the choice option for the poor and working class.
“Our parents, the mode of transport that they normally use is train [sic]. They use train to go from home to work and they use train to go from work to home, but then the issue is that they no longer use trains as part of their main source of transport. So that’s why we came across the solution that why don’t we actually create and build a solar-powered train”, said 18-year-old Ronnie Masindi, one of the student-innovators.
The angular blue-and-white test train has photovoltaic panels fitted to its roof, and moves on an 18-metre track on the school ground in Soshanguve township north of the capital Pretoria.
The train is fitted with car seats and a flat screen TV for entertainment purposes. It can travel at 30 km/h (18.6 mph) – a decent speed compared to the 100mph South Africa’s high speed trains can undertake. It was showcased at a recent universities’ innovation event.
Currently, the test train can run for 10 return trips on the test track, but improvements may still be made as more research is conducted. The prototype will later be presented to the government. If scaled, the invention could revolutionise railway travel in South Africa.
“And why trains? We looked also in the automotive space to say many people are interested in electric cars and other types of transport modes. No one was particularly looking at application of solar technology in locomotives”, explained Kgomotso Maimane, the project's supervising teacher.
The innovation is not entirely new as solar-powered trains are currently being used in some parts of India, London and Australia, although the former two are not fully solar-powered. The applications in all three countries are still in the early stages.
The 2-year journey to complete the “Shoshanguve Automotive SOS” project was riddled with challenges including a lack of funding, however the S. African government later contributed. "It was not a straight line. It was like taking a hike to the highest peak of the mountain,” said 17-year-old Lethabo Nkadimeng, another student-innovator.
Nonetheless, the students soldiered on and arrived at this excellent result. "What we have realised is, if we you give township learners space, resources and a little mentorship they can do anything that any learner can do around the world," Maimane said with pride.
The state power utility Eskom had imposed power rationing in South Africa for the past 15 years as a way to curb total blackouts. These power outages, otherwise called load shedding, have worsened over the years and caused major disruptions to commercial and industrial operations, including rail services.
The railway operator Transnet has been unable to maintain the smooth flow of rail traffic since the economic challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic caused a surge in cable theft.
In 2020, the use of trains among public transport users had reduced by over 60% compared to 2013, according to the National Households Travel Survey. The survey revealed that more commuters were turning to more expensive minibus taxis.
The adoption of the solar train on a national scale just may be a solution to the rail mobility issues caused by South Africa’s looming power issues.
Sources: Africa News, India Today