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SA's railways have lost a quarter of its freight in five years – making already bad roads worse

Business Insider SA
A road with potholes in Bloemspruit, Bloemfontein, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images/Volksblad/Mlungisi Louw)
A road with potholes in Bloemspruit, Bloemfontein, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images/Volksblad/Mlungisi Louw)
  • South Africa's railway network is in a state of decline, as seen by the decrease in freight transported by train over the past five years.
  • The country's rail network carried nearly 230 million tons of freight in 2017 and only 179 million in 2021, the lowest volume recorded over the past decade.
  • This downward trend is continuing, with rail transported tonnage down 4% in the first four months of 2022 compared to last year and 25% down compared to five years ago.
  • With freight off the rails, South Africa's already congested roads are becoming more overburdened.
  • Damage to road infrastructure causes delays and detours, which have a negative economic impact.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

South Africa's dilapidated rail network is forcing more freight onto the country's already overwhelmed roads, increasing congestion and damaging infrastructure.

South Africa could be benefiting from the global commodities boom, but its ailing rail and port infrastructure are making it hard to export goods. South Africa's rail service, overseen by Transnet, is in a state of decline, with the amount of freight carried by train having reduced dramatically over the past five years.

The country's rail network carried close to 230 million tons of freight in 2017, according to Stats SA's land transport surveys.

Since then, those volumes have dropped every year, reaching their lowest levels in a decade in 2021, 22% off the tonnage recorded in 2017. The amount of freight transported by road has almost returned to pre-pandemic levels and is already higher than volumes recorded five years ago.

The move from rail to road shows no signs of abating, with freight volumes down 4% in the first four months of 2022 compared to the same period in 2021. Compared to the same period five years ago, the amount of freight transported by rail in South Africa has dropped by 25%.

This decline has put more trucks on South Africa's roads which are unable to cope with the surge of heavy-duty vehicles.

"We have seen first-hand how the increase in tipper trucks transporting commodities to ports is causing destruction of our road infrastructure," said Roelie van Reenen, supply chain executive at Beefmaster Group.

"I regularly drive the N12 between Christiana and Kimberley, and I am not convinced that the road will be able to cope in the future. If our roads need to be rebuilt or repaired due to the increase in truck traffic, it can take many years to complete. On a stretch of road like the N12 where there is 100km between two economic hubs, this scenario will make it difficult to conduct business."

Roads closed for repairs, which are routinely delayed, add congestion to other highways. This, in turn, damages additional road infrastructure while detours add more travel time for trucks, increasing costs. Mining towns and agricultural communities are especially hard hit by South Africa's flailing rail network and congested roads.

"Road infrastructure should be prioritised prior to congestion so as to minimise economic impact on businesses and towns in affected areas," explained Van Reenen.

"Of course, it goes without saying that it is important that, to really deal with the problem and to make our national roads safer so that that they can continue serving urban and farming communities, road maintenance needs to be supplemented with a robust plan to get our railways back on track. Otherwise, it will yet again be the consumer who has to bear the cost and burden."


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