Make it count Mr President – South Africa needs a Practical, Sustainable and Functional Public-Private-Partnership –to overcome chaos at Transnet Freight Rail.
In his SONA address last year, President Ramaphosa stated, “Transnet will start the process of providing third-party access to its freight rail network from April 2022 by making slots available on the container corridor between Durban and City Deep in Gauteng.” To date, the private sector has not seen any reform to provide third-party access to private operators across our national rail network. The President further said, “Transnet has developed partnerships with the private sector to address cable theft and vandalism on the freight rail network through advanced technologies and additional security personnel. This collaborative effort is already showing results in reduced disruptions to rail operations.”
Unfortunately, the opposite has been true. Although the deterioration of rail freight has been a reality for some time now, the astonishing acceleration of disruptive occurrences due to crime and malfunctioning equipment and stripped infrastructure in recent months has been nothing short of a disaster.
A recent edition of our weekly BUSA/SAAFF Cargo Movement Update* covered this situation, saying that the TFR has been handling reduced volumes, down by as much as 80% since 2010. This operational deficiency, along with the utter destruction of infrastructure and criminality (143 incidents a month!), has crippled a core artery in our trading network.
The RFQ issued by the TFR to the market last week provides a glimmer of hope that rail can return to handling volumes of a bygone era when it was productive, offering a reliable level of service. SAAFF, on behalf of the logistics sector and in unison with private sector bodies, have continually called for decisive, drastic corrective action; the country needs a strong, competent, and independent regulator working across a multi-modal model. Failing to position an independent regulator runs a high-probability risk of the cargo rail system going from a public monopoly to a private monopoly – a position of exposure that SAAFF strongly opposes.
The public and private sectors must collectively deliver a solution and do this with the utmost urgency. Lest we fail this moment and the future – ten years from now, it may be that we might have created a monster with massive unintended consequences.
Ultimately, we cannot emphasise enough the need for a functioning rail system. It is critical to understand the opportunity cost if we fail to cement reform with a sustainable, well-planned and properly implemented strategy. South Africa’s freight demand is exceedingly high, which requires a multi-modal approach. In addition, the increasing rate of damage to road networks can be directly attributed to the lamentable performance of the rail system. We need strong leadership and a change in direction in our SOEs, notably Transnet.