• On track

    Africa’s rail network is in need of a major overhaul, which has created an urgent demand for infrastructure development.

    On track

    South Africa’s railway system currently transports approximately 2 million commuters daily. It’s a far cry from the comparatively few 800 passengers that embarked on the first commuter railway trip – a 3.2 km stretch between Market Square and Customs Point – in Durban in September 1860.

    A few years prior, private companies pioneered the first railway systems, which saw the construction of a 92 km track from Cape Town to Wellington, and the Durban-Point line.

    South Africa’s rail network has since come a very long way. Literally. Globally, it is the 14th longest, connecting with networks in sub-Saharan Africa. The country’s rail infrastructure represents around 80% of the continent’s total.

    ‘As a country, your road and rail network is one of the most important assets that you have – just in sheer monetary value. In kilometres and coverage it is the single biggest asset,’ says Richard Matchett, divisional director at WSP Africa, civil and structural engineers. ‘The sheer capital value of that asset means it really needs attention.’

    Matchett believes that South Africa has some of the best road and rail networks around – and most certainly the most extensive in Africa.

    ‘I think South Africa’s got a lot of the right infrastructure in the right places,’ he says.

    ‘For example, Transnet is planning a new route to Coega from the Northern Cape to export manganese. There is a very specific demand and volume of freight that needs to move from A to B.’

    According to Matchett, the greatest challenge currently being faced is the urgent need to upgrade the ageing rail infrastructure and maintain the road infrastructure. ‘Some of the biggest barriers to success are capacity at an institution level and our country’s procurement system [the tender process],’ he says. He adds that if the current trend of selecting the contractor with the lowest price continues (rather than choosing the best firm for the job), the country will soon face a predicament.

    ‘If we don’t do things in pursuit of excellence but rather in the interests of saving money, we’re going to do it two or three times over,’ he says. ‘Something else to consider, is that the poorer your quality of roads and rail, the higher your repair costs are going to be. A well-maintained network costs less.’

    WSP Africa recently announced that it has brought specialist railway engineering and consulting company, Seporo, into its transport and infrastructure division. According to Darrin Green, CEO of WSP Civil and Structural Engineering: ‘The need for infrastructure development across the African continent is well known. In South Africa, in particular, government has committed to spending ZAR827 billion on infrastructure development over the next three years under the National Development Plan [NDP]. WSP has always had exceptional global rail expertise supporting our local team, but this demand requires increased local capacity.’

    The Seporo team adds extensive surface and underground railway systems experience. Gavin Higgs, one of Seporo’s founding directors and now WSP technical director, brings 33 years of specialist railway design, construction and maintenance experience to the team, while WSP principle partner Eugene Annandale has over 35 years of railway engineering experience.

    The South African government has prioritised the improvement and upgrading of the country’s more than 20 000 km of track. Projects are in place to increase freight rail volumes and completely overhaul passenger rail services.

    Addressing a seminar on road safety in Cape Town in early August, South African Minister of Transport Dipuo Peters said her department planned to shift passengers from road to rail. Over the next three years, ZAR51 billion would be spent on commuter rail infrastructure and new rolling stock. ZAR14 billion had been allocated towards bus subsidies in the current financial year. For the upgrade of road infrastructure, ZAR9.3 billion had been set aside for this financial year, and ZAR9.9 billion for the next.

    Transnet currently moves 17% of the country’s freight annually and exports 100% of its coal and iron. Transnet Freight Rail (TFR) is the parastatal’s largest operating division.

    A key focus of TFR’s seven-year, ZAR312 billion investment programme is the shift in freight traffic from road to rail

    According to Mike Asefovitz, senior manager of external communications at TFR, a key focus of the division’s seven-year, ZAR312 billion investment programme (known as the Market Demand Strategy), is a shift in freight traffic from road to rail.

    ‘The market share currently is very unbalanced, which leads to higher costs and higher carbon intensity. More importantly, it leads the country to being vulnerable with regard to international oil prices. This shift [from road to rail] will allow the country to address costs, congestion and carbon emissions so that we can become energy efficient. All of this is to support South Africa’s long-term sustainability,’ says Asefovitz.

    He adds that safety is another key reason for the shift, especially with regard to the transportation of potentially harmful or hazards materials, such as chemicals.

    Asefovitz says that Transnet’s ZAR312 billion capital investment budget has been sourced by the parastatal from cash reserves and through the bond market.

    ‘This is one of the fallacies people don’t understand. When we build a railway line, there is no taxpayers’ money going into that. It’s all ours. We are responsible for our own bottom line,’ he says. Of the ZAR312 billion, about ZAR210 billion will go towards rail infrastructure; the balance will be dedicated to ports and pipelines. For the year 2014, TFR’s capital investment will be ZAR19 billion, Asefovitz notes.

    The strategy has enabled TFR to upgrade its rolling stock fleet and infrastructure networks, as well as modernise and standardise all assets, after years of under-investment, says Asefovitz. The stock upgrade includes new-generation and more energy efficient locomotives as well as additional wagons that have greater carrying capacity, are made from more durable material and have better braking systems.

    The strategy has also allowed TFR to put money into network improvement such as signalling systems, increased axel loading and branch lines – the ones that run through rural areas, also known as low-density lines.

    Branch lines are integral to the agriculture, mining and timber sectors and serve as important feeders into the broader freight rail business. South Africa currently has 4 000 km of branch lines, with many being reinstated after years of not being used, originally closed as they were deemed unprofitable.

    In their absence, freight was shifted to road in many of these parts, which had a negative impact on the condition of provincial roads, as they were not geared to withstand this sort of heavy traffic. Their reinstatement will be welcome in stimulating rural development.

    A transportation network is the lifeblood of a country’s economy – if goods and services can’t be moved around, the economy stagnates

    According to an NDP report: ‘Investment spending in South Africa fell from an average of almost 30% of GDP in the early 1980s to around 16% by the early 2000s.’ What this essentially means is that the country has missed a generation of capital investment in roads, rail, ports, public transport, electricity, water and sanitation, and housing.

    The Rural Transport Strategy, as part of the NDP, has an access-improvement programme specifically aimed at targeting deep rural areas that remain isolated from major road and rail routes. This initiative will see, among other things, the revitalisation of rural railway operations by expanding freight operations and rail passenger services to rural areas.

    Asefovitz believes that freight rail is well positioned to contribute to the development of intermodalism (the integration of various modes of transportation). He says the existing regional freight system is weakly incorporated and the goal is to create an integrated and aligned infrastructure network that provides capacity ahead of demand. He adds that TFR does not see itself as the only supplier of transport and logistics and there is a definite role for road transportation.

    ‘We recently signed memorandums of understanding with two logistics suppliers in South Africa – Imperial and Barloworld,’ he says. ‘We believe there is place for all parties.’

    Matchett says, and rightly so, that a transport network is the lifeblood of a country’s economy – if goods and services can’t be moved around, the economy stagnates.

    ‘As a country, we’ve been very strong for so long on railways and roads. I think the government needs to prioritise it.

    ‘We have prioritised water and sanitation and housing – and not without good reason – but all of that is for naught if you can’t move around,’ says Matchett. ‘We need to rekindle the effort to maintain the very expensive assets that we’ve got.’

    By Toni Muir
    Image: Gallo/GettyImages