Going nowhere fast

Posted On Friday, 16 April 2010 02:00 Published by eProp Commercial Property News
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Line capacity has not been the problem

Infrastructure ImageLine capacity has not been the problem

Branch line strategy needs a champion

Rail can move three times the traffic over the route, occupying only 38% of the space taken by road.

Not long after Maria Ramos took over as CEO at Transnet in 2004, she raised the possibility of building a high-speed, broad-gauge rail link between Gauteng and Durban.

It was a seductive idea but the cost would have been prohibitive. Another idea was to institute double-decker container trains, but that failed to take into account two key infrastructure parts: overhead electric wires and tunnels.

Such proposals seemed based on the assumption that the existing infrastructure was inadequate — yet the problems on the line and elsewhere on the network were (and are) mainly operational.

The present double-track electrified line between Durban and Gauteng has the capacity to run 110 trains in each direction a day. That works out to an average frequency of four trains an hour. Railway expert Allen Jorgensen estimates that this capacity could be increased to 120 trains a day.

That kind of frequency has been achieved before. In the 1950s and 1960s, before the oil pipeline between Durban and Johannesburg was built, the old SA Railways & Harbours administration was able to run long fuel trains on the line every 30 minutes for parts of the day.

The Durban line can accommodate 50 wagon container or dry-bulk commodity trains, each with a payload of 2000t 3000t. Jorgensen calculates that, based on an average of 2500t a train 350 days a year, the route can carry 83,1Mt in each direction, compared with 36Mt by road.

There are other considerations. In space usage, says Jorgensen, a double track railway occupies 30ha a route kilometre, while a four-lane road takes up 95ha. Rail can move three times the traffic over the route, while occupying only 38% of the space. But the number of trains on the line in recent years has at times been less than 10% of capacity.

Virtually instant deregulation in the early 1980s produced a steady drain of passenger and freight traffic to the roads, aided by one of the highest lorry axle loading regimes in the world.

Rail is at a further disadvantage because it is expected to maintain its infrastructure, whereas road users are subsidised by taxpayers on all roads that are not tolled.

After years of decline, in the mid 2000s Transnet devised an aggressive strategy to recapture market share, recapitalise the railway, compensate for the loss of skills and restore operational efficiencies.

Despite a quarter of a century of neglect, SA still has nearly 21000km of railway (ranked 14th in the world), and only Germany, India and Japan have more electrified rail capacity than SA’s 9570km.

Last year Transnet produced a detailed national infrastructure plan (NIP) which promises it will “implement a high-performance rail corridor backbone for the country that will alleviate corridor congestion and provide the capacity to meet long-term demand for freight in the economy”.

The Durban-Johannesburg route will be the main corridor and can expect at last to receive the necessary investment.

However, one of the consequences of the NIP is that much of SA’s branch-line network — built almost entirely before 1930 — is now regarded as redundant. Though line closures began in the early 1980s, many links have been closed only, not lifted, while others have been kept open despite carrying little traffic. Together these constitute more than 7000km, more than a third of the total network (see map).

Now Transnet is prepared to consider concessioning the lines it no longer wants to private operators or other government departments. Approval has been granted by the minister of public enterprises in terms of the Public Finance Management Act.

Transnet is conducting feasibility studies for each concession. It says there are discussions with the department of transport (which will take responsibility for the strategy) to “finalise a sustainability plan, in line with government policy for rural development; moving more freight off roads and onto rail; reducing freight logistics costs; promoting private sector participation in rail operations; and increasing road and rail safety”.

It sounds good in theory but in practice there are large cracks into which the strategy could fall. One is that the assets deteriorate beyond repair while discussions continue.

Another is that unless the road rail playing field is levelled, few private operators are likely to see a chance of making a profit.

And despite its stated intentions, Transnet has a history of managerial obstruction in areas like steam tourism, tending to impose apparently reasonable restrictions and charges that in practice make projects uneconomic.

What the strategy needs is a champion in government, but there is little sign that one will emerge.


Last modified on Wednesday, 30 October 2013 20:18

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