How can we fix rail and transportation sector challenges?

How can we fix rail and transportation sector challenges?

Despite having Africa’s most advanced railway system, with about 30,000km of track, South Africa’s rail and transportation sector faces significant challenges. ACTOM Signalling GM: engineering projects and contracts, Leonard de Villiers, discusses potential solutions.

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 are 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.

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 a minimum of 90% capacity.

SA has several private sector companies well-positioned to assist the railways and transportation sector. These could render support to any external group taking over the operation of Transnet’s railway lines. With local manufacturing capabilities, these companies can typically support all equipment and systems on the line, offering a range of products, services, and maintenance support tailored to the industry’s specific needs. This would essentially help to improve the overall efficiency, reliability, and safety of SA’s transportation network. At this stage, much of Transnet’s infrastructure – like interlocking systems, points machines, and track detection equipment – is in dire need of maintenance. Local specialist companies can carry out fault finding, repair the systems, or offer solutions that will see trains moving again.

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 faced 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 or our infrastructure.

Many local players have development teams that specialise in designing solutions to uniquely South African challenges and many are already well versed in the problems faced by Transnet. Additionally, local companies are 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 to get help in overcoming the existing capacity and skills gaps. Ultimately, this will enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the country’s transport infrastructure. 

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Focus on Transport

FOCUS on Transport and Logistics is the oldest and most respected transport and logistics publication in southern Africa.
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