Despite having the most advanced railway system on the continent, with about 30 000km of track, the South African rail and transportation sector is currently facing various significant challenges. State-Owned Enterprise (SOE) Transnet, which operates a freight rail division, is currently struggling with issues such as rampant vandalism, insufficient infrastructure and a lack of capacity and skills within its workforce. These challenges have resulted in significant disruptions and inefficiencies in the country’s transportation network, hindering the smooth flow of goods and services, as well as public transportation.
Compounding the problem is a lack of funding for critical projects and cumbersome procurement processes which is stalling decision-making and crippling the entity’s ability to repair its dilapidated infrastructure. A significant indication of Transnet’s challenges is its decision to outsource certain railway lines, including the key container line between Johannesburg and KwaZulu-Natal. This reflects the company’s need to seek external expertise and resources to overcome the deficiencies within its operations.
Lack of funding
Over the past few years, the Johannesburg to KwaZulu-Natal container line has not been operating optimally, running at about 50% below capacity due to vandalism and theft. At the same time, Transnet currently lacks the funding to embark on projects to repair the line, meaning it must turn to the private sector to get involved.
With mounting pressure to remove at least some portion of the freight trucks that use South Africa’s ailing road network, it is expected that private sector investment and expertise will play a key role in bringing the railway line back to operating at 90% capacity at least.
The country has several private sector companies that are well-positioned to assist the railways and transportation sector and could render support to any external group that takes over the operation of Transnet’s railway lines. With their local manufacturing capabilities, these companies can typically support all the equipment and systems on the line, offering a range of products, services, and maintenance support tailored to the specific needs of the industry. This would essentially contribute to the improvement of the overall efficiency, reliability, and safety of the country’s transportation network.
At this stage, much of Transnet’s infrastructure such as interlocking systems, points machines and track detection equipment is in dire need of maintenance, and local specialist companies can carry out fault finding, repair the systems or offer solutions that will see trains moving again.
Local expertise needed
However, it is key that Transnet looks to South African-based companies to renew its rail infrastructure as localised expertise is crucial to addressing the challenges by the railways and transportation sector. South African railways are unique to Africa, so it would be less than ideal for a foreign entity to install systems not geared to the local environment on our infrastructure.
Many local players have development teams that specialise in designing solutions to uniquely South African challenges and many are already well versed with the problems faced by Transnet. Additionally, local companies are also familiar with local systems and requirements, such as South African signalling principles which are different to those in European countries. Thus, homegrown solutions and locally manufactured equipment are much better suited to addressing South Africa’s railway issues.
By partnering with local private sector players, Transnet and other stakeholders in the industry can benefit from a reliable and responsive support system and get help to overcome the existing capacity and skills gaps, ultimately enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of the country’s transport infrastructure.