S.Africa teens build solar train as power cuts haunt commuters

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Pretoria (AFP) – For years, schoolchildren in a South African township have seen their parents struggle to use trains for their daily commute, with the railways often being hampered by power outages and theft of cables.

In response to the crisis, a group of 20 teenagers invented South Africa’s first fully solar-powered train.

Photovoltaic panels mounted on the roof, the angular blue and white test train moves on an 18 meter long test track in the township of Soshanguve north of the capital Pretoria.

Trains are the cheapest means of transport in South Africa and are mainly used by the poor and working class.

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“Our parents … no longer use trains (because of) cable theft … and load shedding,” said Ronnie Masindi, 18, referring to constant blackouts caused by outages at old and poorly maintained coal-fired power plants.

State-owned utility Eskom began enforcing on-off power rationing 15 years ago to prevent a nationwide blackout.


Known locally as load shedding, the power outages have worsened over the years, disrupting commerce and industry, including rail travel.

Infrastructure operator Transnet has been struggling to keep rail services running smoothly since the pandemic’s economic challenges led to a rise in cable theft.

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According to the National Households Travel Survey, by 2020 public transit users’ use of rail had fallen by almost two-thirds compared to 2013, with many commuters resorting to more expensive minibus taxis.

Masindi said they decided to “design and build a solar-powered train that uses solar instead of (grid) electricity to get around.”

The journey was not without its challenges.

Lack of funding delayed production of the prototype locomotive, and the government later got involved.

“It wasn’t a straight line,” said another student, Lethabo Nkadimeng, 17. “It was like hiking to the top of the mountain.”

The train, which can travel at 30 kilometers per hour, was recently presented at a university innovation event.

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On the track installed on the site of a school, the prototype can initially make 10 round trips.

It will be used for further research and eventually presented as a model that the government could adopt.

Outfitted with car seats and a flat-screen TV to keep passengers entertained, it took students two years to build.

“We realized that if we give the township learners space, resources and a little mentoring, they can do anything that any learner anywhere in the world can do,” said Kgomotso Maimane, the project’s supervising teacher.

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