Trucks versus tracks

2013-09-12 00:00

TRANSNET’S inability to deal with transporting goods by rail has led to an explosion in the number of trucks on roads, with ordinary motorists having to deal with damaged roads and congestion.

Transport analysts say the horror truck accident in Pinetown that left 22 people dead last Thursday, reflected just some of the problems in the road freight industry.

Transnet has started to get its act together — shifting some freight off trucks and onto much safer railways this year — following years of decline in the country’s freight rail services.

But, with more than 70% of South Africa’s inland freight still moving by road, it will be many years before the number of trucks on the roads actually declines, if ever.

The proliferation of trucks has led to poor road conditions and congestion, but this has been compounded by weak law enforcement, non-compliance, unlicensed vehicles and issues of vehicle maintenance.

Vaughan Mostert, transport and supply chain management lecturer and analyst at the University of Johannesburg, says the “explosion of traffic on our roads” is set to continue for the foreseeable future.

“Railway needs to jack itself up. The problem is that it has been unreliable. Businesses don’t know when their freight will arrive — in a day, two days or three.”

Michael Brandt, editor of specialist publication Logistics News, says “everyone” recognises that transport efficiency and road safety will improve with better use of the rail system, but “the problem is that the railway system hasn’t been used properly for a long time. A lot of the infrastructure is just too old.”

Mostert said while bulk rail services were operating optimally, the “rail has lost its common touch when it comes to freight”.

Transnet should be considering opening hundreds of smaller depots to help take freight off the roads.

One way to make additional trains and stations feasible was to reach agreement with private logistics operators such as DHL or fuel companies to share the infrastructure, he said.

But Transnet Freight Rail spokesperson Mike Asefovitz says their strategy to shift freight from the roads onto rail, following years of disinvestment in general freight, has become a reality.

As an example, Asefovitz says Transnet’s general rail freight share of the national freight market has increased substantially from 21% in 2008 to 38% in 2012.

Transnet would spend R19 billion on new locomotives, wagons and other rail infrastructure during the 2013/14 financial year.

“We have an aggressive capital expenditure programme in place. We are well positioned now to start taking trucks off the road and putting more freight onto rail,” said Asefovitz.

Transnet said in its latest annual report it intends to invest R142,7 billion to increase its general freight rail capacity to 180,3 million tons per annum, over the next seven years, from 85,2 million tons currently.

A survey by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research shows that South Africa has the lowest per lane maintenance cost at R300 000 per kilometre compared to the U.S. and UK. This is not only due to lower labour costs — the country just spends a lot less on road maintenance.

• A memorial service for the victims of last week’s truck accident will be held today at 9 am at the kwaNdengezi Sports Grounds.

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