By Gavin Kelly, CEO of the Road Freight Association
By Gavin Kelly, CEO of the Road Freight Association

The Minister of Transport has announced a plan to move “most freight from road to rail in the next five years”. This comes on the back of the recent crashes involving freight vehicles. It is not on the back of countless calls and comments relating to the state of logistics in South Africa, or that, to ensure efficient and continued trade supply, that ALL the pieces of the logistics chain need to operate at their optimal and necessary level. This includes ports, airports, roads and – yes – rail.

Any reasonable assessment of logistics chains around the world – and this is what we are talking about – shows that rail needs to play its part in the movement of certain sizes (gross tonnage) and types of cargo. Moving millions of tonnes of coal or ore to a harbour by truck is not sensible, and South Africa leads the way in logistics operations when the dedicated lines carrying coal from the inland mines to Richards Bay, or similarly iron ore to Saldanha were textbook and sustainable examples of main-line rail operations. There were, of course, many more regional rail links that supported agriculture, manufacturing, and general retail business.

Our greatest tragedy is that passenger rail has collapsed – a system that had lines running within most metropolitan areas. Busses (of all types and sizes) must now ply routes ensuring that employees can get to work on time. Efficiency, reliability, and security are not traits commonly associated with rail services, whether passenger or freight.

In terms of freight services on rail: unfortunately no matter how much we would all like the rail system to play its rightful role in the transportation of goods (and people) across our country, this will still take some time in ever becoming a reliable and sustainable alternative. The rail infrastructure has been neglected and destroyed, with parts looking like scenes from apocalypse movies (or what is seen once a war has rolled across a country and peace has finally come). There is a myriad of challenges that face rail – and the plan to address and prevent these recurring is a vital part of any “revitalisation” of rail.

Realities in the freight logistics world determine how freight is moved, which modes are chosen above others and what investment (if any) will be applied to a mode. Transportation has always been a dynamic industry – and whilst those who run businesses in the transportation industry continually compete and try to have an edge or provide the best service, it is the customer (owner of the goods) who ultimately decides on which mode is used. Those customers are businessmen and women – not romanticists.

In the first instance, rail will need to provide the accessible, efficient, reliable, and secure service that is currently provided by other modes – and mostly so by road transport. Once rail can provide that kind of service, then the customer will use rail.

What is the plan to provide that level of service? Where will the funding come from to rebuild / repair and run such a service? Is the plan to tax South Africans even more – or to levy and penalise the efficient road freight industry? Which routes will be chosen, as you cannot fix everything at the same time?

The Road Freight Association (RFA) has had many discussions with the Department of Transport over the last three decades, some large logistics members of the Association brought in concepts of trucks being carried by trains (ie on rail), truck trailers being able to run on rail lines and various other systems. These all eventually came to nothing, as the rail system was unreliable.

Mr Minister, there are certain routes that need to be rebuilt and then run, to prove that rail can be relied upon to play its role as required. The reason for so many coal trucks running through uPhongola is due to the rail system at Richards Bay having collapsed. Evidently the loading process at the port cannot take any coal from rail at the moment.. Is this true? If so, this needs to be repaired.

The Association supports the move of “rail-friendly” cargo to rail. The examples we have (as mentioned earlier) and any other long distance bulk commodities benefit from rail links. The origination and receiving operations on either side of the railway need to be operational. That will require more than just a “move from road to rail”.

In the meantime, we need to deal with non-compliant operators (or any users of public roads).