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03 Sep 2008 06:00
A planned multibillion-rand infrastructure roll-out over the next five years, the build-up to the 2010 Soccer World Cup and growing freight-transport usage are putting pressure on South Africa’s road and rail infrastructure.
Plans for upgrades of major road transport routes and logistics corridors are already under way—or are in the pipeline—and government is also rolling out a long-term strategy to bring the facilities offered by the country’s rail transportation systems in line with 21st-century requirements.
Gavin Kelly, technical and operations manager for the Road Freight Association (RFA) says that the growth rate for road-freight transport over the past two years—from heavy freight loads to consignments of about 3,5 tons—has been about 8%.
“This is a good indicator of not only the growth in the industry, but of peoples’ positive view of the economy — 85% of everything in this country is moved by road.”
Kelly says much of this activity has been buoyed by the building industry and the build-up to the 2010 World Cup.
The consensus among most industry players is that the “road versus rail” rivalry that characterised the transport sector seems to be receding.
Kelly concurs: “In recent months, certainly all the transport role players in the country have realised that resolving the freight transport issue is important for the country. People are beginning to accept—and the chair of the RFA board has articulated this—that we are looking to define the part that each transport mode will play.”
What this means, Kelly says, is when goods are dropped off at Durban, and it makes sense to have them transported by rail, this would be a solution. “But if rail can’t do it, then road will have to do the job.”
Government’s mooted plans for spending on rail infrastructure is aimed at rehabilitating the existing system—not to expand it. This is cause for concern, Kelly says.
“We have our own input that we need to put forward into the process — The big challenge is the growth [in road freight transport] — and until we can sort out the issue of congestion on the roads, we are going to have a problem.
“Government needs to talk to us to try to resolve the situation in the short to medium term until a solution is found for the bulk movement of goods. And one of the key issues is going to be how to control the price of fuel.”
Another issue is, as more toll roads are built or their fees increased, more operators are likely to start using alternative routes.
“These roads are not built to take trucks—and not necessarily big trucks—but smaller ones of about nine to 16 tons,” says Kelly.
With fuel costs accounting for 35% to 50% of operators’ operating expenses, the price increase is set to have a severe effect, say industry analysts.
The recent Eskom crisis and Eskom’s announcement that it intends to procure an additional 45-million tons of coal over the next two years has presented major opportunities for the freight transport industry.
Eskom estimates that about 900 additional trucks would be needed, and substantial road repairs would be required to facilitate this.
At its annual general meeting earlier this year, RFA chairperson Thandeka Mgoduso pointed out that rail continues to enjoy significant government funding. Transnet will invest in excess of R78-billion into infrastructure, of which about 45% will be spent on improving freight-rail infrastructure and rolling stock.
The RFA serves on structures and committees affecting the road-freight industry. It is invited by the transport department to take part in discussions and input on strategy implementation.
The RFA points out that there are other factors impacting on the industry. These include: access to vehicle asset finance, the dramatic increase in truck hijackings, HIV/Aids, the shortage of experienced drivers, inadequate and unsafe roadside rest and parking facilities, and operating conditions.
One of the pivotal truisms in addressing freight and logistics challenges is that if rail transportation does not enjoy the confidence of the public, congestion will strangle metropolitan areas and hurt productivity.
Government has been looking to transform rail systems but, as Transport Minister Jeff Radebe has pointed out, rail transport has been marred by aging infrastructure, lack of investment and decreased freight volumes.
Accordingly, government has developed a national freight logistics strategy for increased investment and better use of rail transportation. Part of the strategy envisages establishing a rail economic regulator to assist government.
It will also to help establish structures to prevent pricing abuse and create an environment for private sector participation.
A key objective of the strategy is to support the integration of local economies with the main logistics corridors and to improve the efficiency of these corridors, as well as rail capacity. Government also has a “priority corridor strategy,” which would allow cross-cutting between rural and urban areas and overcome the urban bias to development.
An example is the Kei rail line, launched in the Eastern Cape in March this year.
As part of the Kei development corridor, the multimillion-rand Kei rail project was conceived to improve the province’s economy and decrease the number of heavy vehicles on the roads. Other projects will include the Enkwalini line in KwaZulu-Natal as well as the Douglas-Belmont line in Northern Cape.
According to Radebe, planning for future corridors that demonstrate a strong case for the role of rail is also of importance. In this regard, the Moloto Rail Corridor Development Initiative, approved by Cabinet in March this year, is another case in point.
This is an initiative that institutionally belongs to the Mpumalanga government but, through the government’s integration systems, involves a number of stakeholders.
A detailed feasibility study for the project aimed at the design and feasibility of a new integrated multimodal transport system was completed last year.
The initiative aims to solve the commuter problem but also to establish an economic activity spine to stimulate local economic development.
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