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Trade, trucks and trains all across SA

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Sasha Planting is a seasoned financial journalist and Associate Business Editor at Daily Maverick Business.

HKGK: There’s light at the end of the tunnel — and it’s not a train

Apparently Transnet gifted South Africans the acronym HKGK, which if you didn’t know means “hier kom groot kak” drily expressed by one train driver to another when the TransKaroo collided with a stationary Blue Train one summer’s night, injuring about 200 people.

That was in 2005 and Transnet hasn’t given us much else since — barring headaches, grand plans and corruption on a monumental scale.

I was mulling over all of this recently when, freed from the constraints of my home, suburb and province, I elected to drive rather than fly to Johannesburg to visit my people.

What a trip it was. I’m no Antje Krog and am ill-equipped to articulate how the big sky and vast spaces of the Karoo and Free State helped fill my soul and reconnect me with my country.

We watched the majesty of a jackal buzzard in flight, witnessed giant flocks of swallows endlessly forming and reforming as they chased their insect dinner, and caught our breath at the cheeky LBJs that dart out of the car’s way seemingly at the last second.

The Karoo sunrise was a case of liquid gold easing into the sky, while, on departing Joburg, the blood-red orb of the sun rose dramatically over a restless and smoky city.

Contrary to popular perception the road is not endless in its nothingness… the emerald green of the Hex River Valley gives way to the smoky blues of the Nuweveld Mountains in the Central Karoo, where rocks date back some 230 million years, which in turn gives way to the soft yellows of the Free State where the rain has washed away the winter dust.

Undertaking such a journey is to be gently reminded of South Africa’s wondrous diversity.

But the trip almost reconnected us with our maker, in a less spiritual way. On no less than three occasions we were confronted with the sight of giant trucks bearing down on us on both sides of the road, forcing us to take evasive action as they lumbered past seemingly unmindful of our presence. 

These adrenaline-inducing events eventually became exhausting.

Where are the trains, I wondered? In a little over 3,000km of travel, we did not see one train. Not one. Not even a parked one. That’s with the obvious exception of the sidings in Johannesburg.

And I hear that on the country’s vital Durban-Johannesburg corridor — which connects the port to the country’s economic heartland — the number of container trains has fallen by 70% compared with this time last year.

The economy has shrunk, but not by that much, so one presumes that importers and exporters, frustrated at Transnet’s unreliability, are increasingly shifting to road, despite its additional costs.

The loss of the country’s rail capacity must be one of the most significant economic tragedies of the past few decades, and let’s be honest, the underinvestment started long before 1994.

One trigger was the aggressive road deregulation initiative that first began with the Road Transport Act in 1977.

Successive iterations of the act have increased the maximum road payload capacity to 45 tons per vehicle — and that’s for local trucks. Trucks from over the border can carry heavier payloads.

This comes at great expense to the economy. Logistics costs represent a considerable percentage of GDP — about 14%, according to the CSIR’s annual State of Logistics Surveys, which were conducted between 2003 and 2013. This is almost double the US and triple European countries, but equivalent to the likes of India, China and Brazil.

This does not compute the cost of carbon emissions nor the damage to South Africa’s road network. The N1 is not in the pristine condition it once was.

The surveys also noted that South Africa’s logistics efficiency — customs clearance, ease of arranging competitively priced shipments, timeliness, trade and transport-related quality — declined significantly between 2008 and 2013.

Presumably this trend has continued, making the country less competitive relative to other emerging markets.

We got into this situation thanks to structural investment myopia. Our dense long-haul road corridors are intrinsically more expensive than a system that would see road and rail as complementary to each other. This is Transnet’s unrealised vision.

One wonders whether the situation can be turned around.

What is daunting is the realisation, noted in research conducted for the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, that even if rail were to triple its current freight volumes, road transport would need to increase by 180% in order to meet the projected freight demand levels in the next two decades. That is a scary thought for anyone hoping to traverse this country’s road network safely and easily.

Upgrading South Africa’s road and rail capacity, to transport both people and goods efficiently, holds considerable economic potential for the country and needs to be attended to urgently. BM/DM

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  • Carsten Rasch says:

    A great tragedy, as the writer says. Truck behemoths have all but taken control of most the major trading routes between urban centre and to the harbors. Maria Ramos can be thanked for that, as she decimated rail routes, laying waste to numerous small towns’ access to reasonable transport costs via rail, relegating beautiful stations to storage depots, or just bricked up, cannibalising rolling stock to be sold as scrap to the East, and changing our roadscape forever. What Transnet lost with Ramos at the helm can never be built up again. To top it all, the loss to tourism and heritage has never been calculated. A folly of note…

  • Andrew Johnson says:

    Excellent comment and I agree with Carsten Rasch, I recently post on LinkedIn an article from Club Mozambique, bragging that the passenger service from Beira to Harare was ready to be restarted, all rails in place, locos working, passenger coaches ready for bums on seats. I then wondered when could Prasa/ Shosh Meyl or Transnet ever be able to brag about a rail service restarting.
    What has been done to the once, go anywhere, rail network is nothing short of criminal.

  • John Kennedy says:

    While a tragedy what has happened to our rail network, is it a surprise when one considers the enormous revenue received from the taxations on fuel?

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