January 26, 2021  

Supplied by Minx Avrabos from SAIEE

COMMENTARY ON THE ENERGY ARTICLE IN WATTNOW - NOVEMBER 2020                                                   

The November 2020 issue of your magazine, Wattnow, includes an unexpected, but a very welcome article on energy scenarios for SA up to 2050. I want to congratulate the SAIEE (assuming that it played some part in sponsoring this project), and the University of Cape Town for this groundbreaking exercise.

However, having been an advocate of better public transport for almost sixty years, I know that merely producing an article and doing something about it are two different things. Over the years, many pretty pie charts and graphs have been created, and many platitudes have been expressed, such as the "need to prioritise" rail transport and “achieve a 50% public/private transport share”. These noble aims are nothing new, but they haven’t been achieved so far, and there is no hope of achieving them without a higher level of commitment.

This is not a time for complacency - the electrical engineering (EE) profession worldwide should start doing some hard thinking about its role in an energy-constrained, rapidly-warming, post-Covid world. In South Africa, where criminality has made electric public transport shambles, it needs to think even more rigid and act with even more urgency.

Criminal activity does not consist only of cable theft, vandalism and damage. It includes low academic standards and misconduct in the boardroom, city council and government level, where manipulated figures and false assumptions find their way into official reports and documents. These practices began in the early 1960s, pre-dating cable theft by several decades.   

For a long time now, transport planning worldwide has been dominated by the civil engineering profession. Sadly when it comes to passenger transport, for many years the civils in South Africa has been producing transport plans and doing "modelling" work, with nothing to show for it. Elegant vanity projects such as Gautrain and several BRT schemes have been financially disastrous and have failed to benefit the lower section of the community. In my opinion, civils does not care about waste and mismanagement in public transport, a significant contributor to our junk status.  

I believe that the EE profession should become more involved in the transport planning role. But before that can happen (even assuming that it wants to), it will need to get its act together on several transport issues. These include a re-think on its attitude towards electric trolleybuses.

So, my question to the EE profession is – do you care? I will assume that the UCT/Wattnow article suggests that you do! The UCT research builds on the work done by Canadian researchers Gilbert and Perl, whose 2010 book Transport Revolutions was the first, and best attempt so far to quantify the large number of variables involved in trying to reduce the world’s future energy requirements. They approached the topic by giving detailed advice to the two largest countries, the USA and China, representing developed and developing countries, respectively.

As a lecturer in transport economics at UJ, I prescribed this book in my final year before retirement (2013). I asked students to suggest how a country like South Africa should develop its energy policy, bearing in mind the heavily skewed nature of our economy. (Just in passing, the book was “unprescribed” immediately after I left UJ!).

The UCT/Wattnow article goes a long way towards filling this gap in the South African context and deserves wide publicity. However, it also needs to be developed and quantified further, to the level of detail presented by Gilbert and Perl.  Two critical developments need to be factored in. The first is the worldwide issue of Covid, which has slashed passenger levels everywhere. With the trend towards working from home, this will permanently undermine the economics of rail commuter transport which is capital-intensive and needs high volumes to justify its existence.  Second is the local issue of the destruction and theft of hundreds of kilometres of overhead electrical equipment, the vandalisation of signals, points, cabling and substations. The cost of fixing all of this will amount to many billions of rand, which could have been avoided.

Less capital-intensive forms of high-capacity electric transport, primarily the trolleybus at this stage, should therefore be adequately evaluated. In an urban situation, the modern electric trolleybus can do just about anything that rail (heavy, light, metro) can be expected to do.      

I am not aware of any meaningful response from the electrical engineering profession to these developments, which leads to the following questions:

Is the local profession merely hoping to get contracts for the replacement of the copper and cables? After that has been done, will it then sit back and wait another ten years for the cables to be stolen again and for the whole sad process to repeat itself?

Is it merely satisfied with a slice of the R123 bn contract for new commuter coaches – all 7 224 of them – so that they can in turn either be burned down to the frames or otherwise stand idle all over the country while inefficient minibus-taxis move the passengers?

Are the taxis indeed more efficient? We need to know so that the actual inefficiency of electric transport can be formally acknowledged and the railway contracts can then be cancelled.


Is this what the EE profession wants?

Perhaps the profession is so embarrassed at the goings-on at Eskom that it wants to stay under the radar. Or maybe it is too busy still trying to figure out how to develop batteries that can hold 1 000 kW, be recharged in five seconds, and never need replacement. Perhaps it relies on hydrogen fuel cells, supercapacitors, flywheels, studs under the road and other gadgetry, to keep the world moving. Good luck with all of that!


I want to share some ideas with those members of your profession who hold their product in higher esteem than others seem to do and are prepared to do something about it.    

Gilbert and Perl recognised the problems involved in breaking the civils' dominance and devoted about fifty pages of their book to ways in which it would have to be done to facilitate electric mobility. Their focus was mainly on the USA where rail and highway construction/oil/motor interests are robust and block change. (Unsurprisingly, they concluded that China would not be as much of a problem).


In South Africa, even more, may have to be done than in the USA. Achieving a target of 508 Pj by 2050 instead of 1 117 Pj will only be achieved if the EE profession starts to give leadership right now, in 2021.

Since the 1950s the EE profession – worldwide - has had very little to say when electric trolleybuses have been eliminated, and its silence in calling for their introduction or return is deafening, to me at least. So here are some ideas:

·       Set up a task team to deal with, and act upon, the following and other issues.

·       Do an audit of every rail traction substation (including Gautrain) to determine whether it can contribute to supplying current for battery recharging of any road vehicle (cars, minibuses, deliveries, etc.) as well as overhead wires for trolleybuses.

·       Link up with a group called Trolleymotion, and tap into the research being done at the University of Gdansk and elsewhere, into In Motion Charging.

·       Question the following quote from a letter from the Department of Transport dated 30 June 1986 regarding the economics of trolleybuses:

“Even if its economic life were to be extended, if the buses could carry more passengers and if the costs of maintaining the overhead wires were to be reduced, these buses would still be inferior in economic terms.” There was no challenge to that comment 34 years ago, nor has there been at any time since.

·       Every large city in SA has (diesel) bus services that have been falling apart for years. All of these services, including BRT, need major re-organising. Suppose the EE profession wants buses to be electric. In that case, it will need to look into the duplication of routes, inefficient scheduling of drivers, and other operational issues such as fragmented fare systems, that need sorting out. The civils has been only too happy to ignore these issues. Start by trying to make sense of the published timetables on Golden Arrow's websites (Cape Town), Putco (Gauteng) and the three municipalities of Johannesburg, Tshwane and eThekwini. Try asking a civil engineer to explain them to you!

·       Bring a used electric trolleybus to South Africa for demo purposes. Quito has a few which have done around 2 million km. (Of course, a new Hess triple-section trolley would be better). Challenge Siemens, Bombardier and any other companies that have claimed that more rail is the answer, to become part of the solution and not part of the problem.

·       Get our underperforming universities to start looking at solutions. UCT could investigate adapting the dud battery-electric buses in Cape Town to draw power from overhead wires from the Waterfront up to the lower cable station, coupled with a ban on cars parking on the mountain. Even if tourists never return to the mountain in large numbers, the environmental impact of such a step will be substantial and will capture worldwide attention.

·       Wits and UJ, both of which are way behind the curve in giving academic leadership on transport matters, could look into electric trolleybuses' multiple-unit operation.

·       The University of Pretoria could look into the use of trolleybuses on the Moloto Road.

·       UKZN could look at using trolleybuses, either in multiple or pulling trailers on the now-abandoned railway line through Greenwood Park. The line can become the world’s first heavy-rail-to-trolleybus conversion, which will allow buses to continue on the road network into Phoenix and KwaMashu with fewer passengers having to transfer.

The following academic references, all of them UJ theses, have been missed by both the UCT and the GCRO (a joint venture between UJ and Wits) in recent transport-related documents. They are all available on the UJ website.

·       Mostert CWV 1986   The role of the electric trolley bus in urban transport

·       Mostert CWV 1995   Guidelines for passenger transport in South Africa: a multi-modal analysis

·       Wentzel F 1999          Proposals for the co-ordination of formal public transport in the    

                                                     Johannesburg area. (I believe that this thesis was deliberately ignored so

                                                     that Gautrain and BRT could go ahead unhindered).

·       Tiawoun Y-B 2004     Public Transport in developing cities: a possible role for the duo-bus?

·       Dimitrov L 2012         The link between transport, social exclusion and energy issues in the South

                                                    African context

·       Tshoba ZC 2014         Public passenger transport in Ekurhuleni: current issues and future                   



I repeat my question – does the EE profession care, or is it happy to merely copy other professions in wasting time sponsoring meaningless research?

Yours in hope,

Vaughan Mostert

21 January 2021

PS  We also need to remind ourselves that our underperforming railway, which includes branch lines, is 100% powered by electricity. If I were an electrical engineer, I would be embarrassed at its underperformance.    

PPS On 9 January 2021 a fire in a substation knocked out several metro lines in Mexico City. Buses (including trolleybuses) were called in to help out. If this had been a trolleybus substation, there would have been loud calls to shut the trolleybus system down. Please add this type of false thinking to your “to do” list!