South Africa’s new ‘Transformer’ trucks could cut logistics costs by 20%

Global rail technology company, RailRunner, is introducing their hybrid trucks into South Africa that run on both road and rail.

Global rail transport technology company, RailRunner, is introducing its hybrid trucks into South Africa, which run on both road and rail.

A pilot project, set to launch next year, will introduce a new freight service in South Africa that allows hybrid trucks to make use of both road and rail networks.

The initiative is a joint venture between RailRunner South Africa (the local subsidiary of global rail-cargo technology company RailRunner) and Transnet (a state-owned logistics group). The two companies recently signed a 20-year agreement to put RailRunner’s hybrid-truck technology into service on Transnet’s rail system, with an initial focus on the 1,400 km ‘Cape Corridor’ that connects Cape Town and Johannesburg. RailRunner estimates the contract’s value at US$400m in service revenues and third-party equipment sales.

According to Mike Daniel, CEO of RailRunner South Africa, the new service will save the trucking industry 20% of its total logistics costs by allowing containers to be carried by more energy-efficient rail. This saving will be greater in African countries where road infrastructure networks are either poor or non-existent.

The technology works like this: The technology relies on a bespoke trailer that can connect to both a truck horse (the part of the truck where the driver sits) and the vehicles used on rail lines (called bogies). The trailer’s chassis has wheels suitable for roads, which are raised pneumatically when used on rail so that they do not touch the tracks. This means that there is no need for cranes or dedicated freight terminals.

Daniel explains that the private sector will own these bespoke trucks, which are expected to cost up to 40% more than conventional trucks. However, RailRunner is planning to manufacture both the rail bogies and trailers locally: “The more than we can do here the better,” he says.

Truck operators will require two drivers – one situated at the start and another at the end of the railway freight service. This will cut down the time drivers have to spend on the road, reducing the likelihood of accidents.

“The road transport industry has already publicly disclosed that they are suffering from a lack of competent, long-distance drivers,” Daniel explains. “It is inevitably quite a lonely life.”

He adds that the initiative has already received strong interest from private industry players.

“We have had a number of telephone calls from people proposing to put in terminals or invest – so the [interest] has been huge.”

“I think this is what Africa has been waiting for. I compare it to the communications infrastructure in Africa, where we never had the copper wire so we embraced cellular [mobile] technology a lot more quickly and easily than the rest of the world – and I think the same will go for this technology.”