It’s full steam ahead with research in rail engineering

Owning a train set is many a child’s dream. Now this dream can reach new heights for engineering students who want to take their interest in trains further and make a career of it. They can enter the exciting field of rail engineering and have a positive impact on the rail sector as part of the PRASA Engineering Research Chair.

“PRASA approached us in 2009 with the request to help them solve recurring maintenance and engineering problems. Because the root causes of the problems were extremely complex, PRASA decided to sponsor a Research Chair at Stellenbosch University that would initiate and execute research in maintenance management and engineering management principles best suited to PRASA’s needs,” says Prof Neels Fourie who has been the holder of this Chair since its inception in 2011.

“Almost ten years ago we started out as a small gathering of post- and undergraduate students. Although the PRASA Chair is hosted in the Department of Industrial Engineering, in 2019 this research group has grown into a multidisciplinary team of 9 academics and 19 current students spanning over most of the five departments within the Faculty. We are the only group in the Faculty that has the common goal to improve rail engineering and to make rail the preferred means of travel in South Africa.”

Prof Fourie continues: “In addition to the research capabilities, the PRASA Chair further gains access to leading international institutions and capabilities. In the fast-moving world of rail, it is important to stay abreast of national and international developments. One of the mandates of the Chair is therefore to facilitate growth and improvement, through the establishment and maintenance of a strong network of local and international collaborators. The most notable local initiative is the funding from the Cape Higher Education Consortium/Western Cape Government (CHEC-WCG) joint research programme which funded the research about vandalism and theft analysis during 2018. The Chair further keeps close contact with representatives at the Provincial Department of Transport and Public Works, who is also represented on the Chair’s advisory board. An example of international collaboration is a project funded by a consortium with MC Mobility and the St. Pölten University of Applied Science in Austria which aims to develop an integrated platform for life cycle costing for PRASA through the Austrian Research Promotion Agency.

“To keep track of the Chair’s outputs, regular feedback sessions are held with the PRASA engineering team which consists of engineering managers from Gauteng as well as the Cape Town regions. In March, we were delighted when two top PRASA executives, Dr Nkosinathi Sishi (Acting Group CEO) and Dr Sipho Sithole (Group Chief Strategy Officer) paid us a visit.”

Some of the research areas covered by the Chair include energy management, reliability engineering, big data analysis, asset use optimisation, simulation, facility layout designs, maintenance management, process improvement and artificial intelligence in rail, to name a few. Prof Fourie notes: “We encourage final-year engineering students to consider topics in rail engineering for their final-year projects as we work closely with the Departments of Civil, Mechanical and Mechatronic, and Electrical and Electronic Engineering with regards to final-year project supervision. So under- and postgraduate students do not necessarily have to be Industrial Engineering students to do research in rail engineering.”

Prof Fourie elaborates: “One important case study we have concluded involves vandalism and theft of railway assets which is a major cause of disruption in the rail network. With the increase in population and the increased need for public transportation, the rail network is struggling to meet its demand because of these disruptions. During 2018 a data analysis was carried out on incidences of vandalism and theft of rolling stock and infrastructure assets for the Western Cape rail network. The analysis showed a distinct pattern of increased incidents from 2013 to 2014, a decrease from 2014 to 2015 and a large increase again towards 2017. Hotspot locations for rolling stock assets were found to be Paarden Eiland, Salt River and Cape Town. Hotspot locations for infrastructure assets were found to be Bonteheuwel, Lavistown and Nyanga. For both sets of data the components most effected were copper cables.

“The root cause of vandalism incidents was found to be acquisition vandalism (in other words, theft), and the root cause for the theft incidents were found to be illegal business opportunities that stem from the accessibility to the rail network and the high value of copper. Possible engineering solutions to prevent incidents against the Western Cape rail network include concrete troughs and glass fibre reinforced plastic pipes to encase the cables, anti-theft trigger alarms and CCTV and/or drones at access points, overall improvement of the perimeter protection, changing the company culture and introducing fire retardant materials. This research will help PRASA to reduce vandalism and theft by understanding the patterns within the data. By reducing the number of incidents against the rail network PRASA will be able to increase the service and meet the demand.”

Prof Fourie concludes: “In April this year, the Chair was fortunate to be invited to attend the launch of PRASA’s new trains at the Cape Town Station as guests of the Minister of Transport, Dr Blade Nzimande, the Chair of the PRASA Board, Ms Khanyisile Kweyama, and the President of South Africa, Mr Cyril Ramaphosa. I attended this function and was accompanied by our group’s two research engineers (Pieter Conradie and Olabanji Asekun) and Prof Jan Wium (Chair: Civil Engineering). It was indeed an exciting event and made us proud to be involved in this important field that could benefit millions of our fellow countrymen.”