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Rickety rail put South Africa on road to nowhere, getti...

Defend Truth


Rickety rail put South Africa on a road to nowhere, getting off it will be a long and complicated project


Xolisa Phillip has had quite an adventure as a journalist in the roles of subeditor, news editor, columnist and commentator. She pretends to be Olivia Pope during the day, while still maintaining a presence in journalism – a passion project she cannot shake away. Journalism keeps finding Phillip no matter where she is and somewhat manages to hold its own space no matter where she is professionally.

The ideals in the government’s White Paper on National Rail Policy are ambitious but not far-fetched. The shortcomings of rail are well ventilated and the solutions proposed are rooted in reality.

South Africa missed the “rail renaissance” of the 1990s and later years, the state admits in the White Paper on National Rail Policy. The chiming of trains on rail has long been displaced by the bellowing of trucks on the country’s roads.  

The consequences are both environmental and economic. 

Trains are less costly to run, are more energy-efficient and better suited for climate mitigation adaptation than trucks on roads. However, the monopolistic structure and somewhat dysfunctional state of rail have resulted in the dominance of road transport – an abnormal trend that defies regional and international developments.

Rail’s losses over 30 years, in terms of market share, revenue generation and overall use, have steadily accrued to road hauliers. Rail has a less than 20% share of the general freight market. 

But the shift in market dynamics of general freight from rail to road poses a risk to the country’s road infrastructure and contributes to the transport sector’s high greenhouse gas emissions. 

In the white paper, the state observes: “Road hauliers have found themselves able to punch above their weight due to a dysfunctional railway shedding its natural traffic to them and thereby giving rise to undue road maintenance costs.” 

The government aims to change that by making rail the “backbone” of national land transport by 2050. That is the context in which the process to open the rail network to third-party access is taking place. 

Talking about trains is a sure-fire way to derail any conversation

Beyond introducing competition to general freight on rail, the state wants to shift traffic away from South Africa’s congested roads to the underused rail network. This is a complex, multidecade project.

The third-party access could be characterised as the first phase of South Africa’s attempts at rail revival, which will probably be the country’s largest “infrastructure project ever”.  

Relic of the past

The ideals articulated in the white paper are ambitious but not far-fetched. The shortcomings of rail are well ventilated and the solutions proposed are rooted in reality.   

Admittedly, high-speed trains are part of the plan. However, the white paper envisages such a scenario only happening in the latter half of the 2030s, given the enormity of the task of modernising the rail network. 

Read: “Big hurdles to be overcome as Transnet Freight Rail kicks off private sector bid process

In addition to the capacity, safety and inefficiency issues, South Africa’s vast network comprises mostly narrow-gauge railways, a relic of the past. There are also structural anomalies around branch lines, which were mostly rolled out in rural areas but are now underused because of better road infrastructure.  

The white paper proposes a move to standard gauge, which is widely used globally and has driven greater integration of general freight rail in Europe, Asia and parts of Africa. But South Africa – and southern Africa in general – could lose out on this integration wave if it does not address its narrow-gauge problem. According to the white paper, standard gauge is conducive to modernisation and adaptable for passenger rail. It can also accommodate heavier and high-speed rolling stock.  

Read: “What broke South African rail – and can it be fixed?

To ensure that the white paper moves from policy proposition to enforceable legislation, the Department of Transport will take the lead in the formulation of a National Rail Act and the development of a National Rail Master Plan. 

South Africa’s ports are a case in point about the perils of inefficient monopoly and highlight the significance of having a plan in place to counteract decline. At the country’s ports, the market has responded to high prices by shifting “exports from and imports to landlocked countries to ports in neighbouring countries with concomitant loss of jobs and revenue for the country”. 

Rail’s decline and underperformance correlate with similar economic consequences. DM168 

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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