Africa’s trains in the future

 By Nicholas Newman

Today, it is rare to see Africa’s locomotives using coal as a fuel of choice. Instead, it is likely to be diesel or electric engines pulling the continent’s freight and passenger trains. Across Africa, a rail investment boom is taking place, resulting in plans to invest $30 billion on 6,835 miles of new railway track, engines and enhanced services. Rail operators including Egypt’s ENR, Morocco’s ONCF and South Africa’s Transnet have ordered a huge number of new locomotives…

New Locomotives Ordered

Leading the way is South Africa’s state-owned freight rail company Transnet that alone has ordered 1,064 diesel locomotives from four major locomotive manufacturers: Canada’s Bombardier, China’s CSR Zhuzhou Electric Locomotive and China North Rail Rolling Stock (CNR) and the American General Electric (GE). As a result, key technology providers, such as Bombardier, ABB and General Electric have set up assembly plants in South Africa. Today, it is a common sight to see Africa’s freight and passenger train services to be powered by diesel or electricity. However, future train services could be fueled by batteries, hybrid power or, even liquid natural gas (LNG).

Transnet Freight Rail C30ACi Class 43 (Eugene Armer,



Diesel is a popular choice in African countries where power supplies are unreliable including Nigeria and Zambia. Diesel locomotives are ideal for moving bulky raw materials such as coal, iron ore and commodities. In fact, teams of diesel locomotives operate one of the world’s longest freight trains in Mauritania. This 2.5 km long train moves iron ore from the Mauritanian iron centre of Zouerate to the Atlantic port of Nouadhibou, across 704-km of Saharan Desert. In response to the growth in demand for locomotives, General Electric has set up plant near Pretoria in South Africa. Here, GE is assembling from kits imported from the US its C30ACi locomotive for its African customers. This new locomotive offers its African clients a range of benefits including being more fuel-efficient and having lower emissions than conventional diesel-electric locomotives. Also, this model will be the first in the sub-Saharan region to meet International Union of Railways UIC 2 emission standards. As a result, GE has received orders for 233 locomotives from freight operators in South Africa, 100 from Angola and 120 from Mozambique.

The iron ore train (Michal Huniewicz)

Electric Trains

In countries with stable power supplies, such as Ethiopia and Morocco, electric rail networks are being expanded. For instance, Morocco’s state rail operator ONCF has ordered 12 Alstom SA Duplex trains for its new $2 billion electric high-speed line. This new line linking Casablanca and Tangier is due to open in 2018. Many operators are opting for electric locomotives, due to their environmental credentials and lower operating costs when compared with diesel. Evidence suggests that electric trains are greener than diesel, producing 20 to 30 percent less carbon monoxide and, in the UK at least, they cost just 26 pence per mile to keep up compared to 47 pence for diesel. In addition, electric trains are lighter on track wear and tear and so less expensive than diesel.
However, electrified services experience higher capital costs than diesel, which make them impractical on lightly trafficked routes. In addition, there is the need to operate on electrified tracks despite a lack of stable power supplies in many African countries.

First Moroccan TGV 1201 (

Battery locomotives

Battery-powered engines have long operated deep underground in many of the continent’s diamond, silver and gold mines. In fact, South Africa’s Sibanye Gold mine operates its own battery-powered locomotives, which incorporate regenerative braking, just like a hybrid car. It stores surplus power from braking and then uses it when it needs to move again. Already, some tram networks are running partially wire free, such as Bordeaux and Nice, so it is likely, a breakthrough in battery technology could open the way for battery-powered trains at least in large African cities.

Battery-powered locomotive (

Hybrid Trains

Hybrid locomotives operate using at least two different power or fuel sources, for example, diesel and electricity. In Britain, a new hybrid locomotive for intercity express services is in service. Hitachi’s AT 300 is designed to work using either electricity or diesel. This option was taken by the UK’s Department of Transport because it wanted such new trains to operate beyond the existing electrified network. However, this combination of energy sources requires reliable electricity supplies, which have been difficult to achieve in much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Great Western Railway’s Intercity Express (John Simmons,

Dual-Fueled Trains

Another form of hybrid trains are dual-fueled trains that work on both diesel and natural gas. This type of locomotive might prove popular in oil and gas rich countries like Angola, Nigeria and Kenya. Already, locomotive manufacturers like Caterpillar and GE are marketing dual-fuel locomotive retrofit kits, for locomotives. GE Transportation reports that its kits, allow railroads to use LNG as a fuel source, reducing emissions and potentially reducing fuel costs by 50 percent while not compromising performance.
Also, gas-powered freight trains are being used by America’s Florida’s East Coast Railway and BNSF to deliver cargo to customers.

GE Transportation NextFuel™

Such advantages make hybrid and dual-fueled locomotives attractive for countries where traffic levels do not yet justify investment in electrification. Though, the technical complexity of the new technology may make use of gas less attractive for African rail operators. As for the future, there is quite a range of options available to power Africa’s freight and passenger railways. In many cases, those options will be dependent on the cost of the technology utilized and the reliability of fuel sources. One thing is clear, both diesel and electric locomotives are likely to dominate the African market for some time.

SEE MORE: Renewables on track by Nicholas Newman

about the author
Nicholas Newman
Freelance energy journalist and copywriter who regularly writes for AFRELEC, Economist, Energy World, EER, Petroleum Review, PGJ, E&P, Oil Review Africa, Oil Review Middle East. Shale Gas Guide.