SA’s freight trains are now the emptiest they’ve been in a decade – with roads taking the load

Business Insider SA
Freight by truck versus train in South Africa
(Photo by Gallo Images / Sowetan / Thulani Mbele)
  • South Africa's freight trains are the emptiest they've been in over a decade, with more cargo being diverted to trucks.
  • This literal derailment has been blamed on theft and vandalism of the country's rail infrastructure.
  • A bumper agriculture season and the temporary closure of the biggest railway corridor for transporting coal has only added to Transnet's woes.
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South Africa's dilapidated rail infrastructure continues to push more freight onto the country's roads. The latest data shows that trucking and road-based logistics companies have mostly recovered to pre-pandemic levels – while freight trains are the emptiest they've been in over a decade.

The steady decline of South Africa's rail system, in part due to theft and vandalism of critical infrastructure, has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdown. Less than a quarter of all freight moved in 2020 was transported by rail, even though road-based volumes were stunted for a longer period due to economic inactivity.

The road freight sector, which recorded a steeper reduction in payload volumes and income for 11 months of the year, began to rebound in December, exceeding pre-pandemic loads by nearly 8%. While road freight's recovery has been slightly more muted in the first quarter of 2021, mainly due to lockdown in January and February, payloads transported by rail remain at their lowest levels since 2008, according to data supplied by Statistics South Africa (StatsSA).

South Africa trains
(Data: Stats SA)

More than 150 million tons of cargo was transported by road between January and March 2021, compared to just 40 million moved by rail. More worrying for the rail sector is its continuing downward trend, as noted by the latest Ctrack Freight Transport Index for April, compared to the swift recovery in road transport.

"The recovery in road freight is clear to see with over 6,000 trucks a day passing the Tugela toll plaza, which is very close to pre pandemic levels," says Hein Jordt, the managing director of Ctrack SA in the latest index report issued on Thursday.

"In addition, other truck indicators report very high truck counts in metropolitan areas such as Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg, and Tshwane. Furthermore, record agricultural harvests in many sub-sectors ranging from maize to grapes have boosted road freight due to the fact that rail no longer serves many of the rural areas."

Almost R2.5 billion worth of agriculture and forestry primary products were moved in the first quarter of 2021. Manufactured food, beverages, and tobacco – which are the most common goods moved by trucks – were valued at over R4.5 billion.  

South Africa's rail, port, and pipeline company, Transnet, is responsible for the upkeep of around 31,000 kilometres of track across the country. Transnet Freight Rail is the embattled state-owned enterprise's single largest division and focuses on heavy haul coal and iron ore export lines. The group reported a R3 billion loss in 2020, with domestic coal volumes dropping by almost 8%.

But this drop in volume transported by Transnet is not the result of a dwindling supply but rather a rerouting of coal to trucks as critical rail corridors remain unusable due to disrepair and unreliability.

"Rail freight continues to lose market share, a trend that has been exacerbated by the derailment of coal," notes Ctrack’s report.

"Rail Freight volumes are currently 177 points down on a year ago. On the contrary Road Freight, which is now the biggest sector of the index has reached an all-time high of 119,7."

The most notable example of physical derailment occurred in late 2018, when 51 wagons loaded with coal went off the tracks while on route to the Richards Bay Coal Terminal. The line, which services South Africa's main export port, remained closed for most of May. Transnet’s Freight Rail general manager, Caesar Mtetwa, blamed the derailment on "sabotage" in an interview with Engineering News.

Vandalism and cable theft have also been blamed for the systematic dismantling of Transnet's rail infrastructure.

"Between April 2019 and January 2020, Freight Rail lost 354,227 meters of overhead cables, resulting in an average of 21 trains being cancelled per day," explained Transnet spokesperson Ayanda Shezi.

"In 2020 alone, TFR reported 5,138 incidents ranging from cable theft, vandalism of rail equipment, and deliberate cutting of cables."

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