Drones, better planning part of plan to fix Joburg-Durban rail freight link

File image: Lowvelder

File image: Lowvelder

The line had in the past handled 45% of Durban-Gauteng container traffic but this had shrunk to about 25%.

South Africa’s prime general freight rail corridor had been “brought to its knees” by infrastructure failure, rampant cable theft, and uncoordinated planning, but Transnet says a comprehensive fix was under way and the service would be fully operational by October.

Herbert Msagala, the parastatal’s chief executive for growth and diversification, told an industry forum in Durban on Thursday that the parastatal had “dropped the ball” when it came to infrastructure on the Natal Corridor (Natcor) between Johannesburg and Durban.

“We bought the toys. The locos are there but the infrastructure is in a shambles. We were not smart,” said Msagala.

The line had in the past handled 45% of Durban-Gauteng container traffic but this had shrunk to about 25%.

In an interview on the sidelines of the conference, he said the 600km line had lost business as shipping times ballooned, with only about 30% of trains arriving on time.

“Our biggest challenge is not efficiency, it’s reliability. It had got to the point where you can play roulette whether we would be there on time,” said Msagala.

He said an embankment had collapsed at Thornville, near Pietermaritzburg, two and a half years ago. And while repairs were done, the two-line corridor had to be reduced to one line, speed restrictions introduced and manual signalling used.

Other factors that had slowed the service included:

  • Ageing locomotives and a lack of maintenance of these;
  • Overhead cable theft; and
  • Strikes

He said their Natcor turnaround plan was addressing the problem from a number of directions.

Drones equipped with infrared imaging were now being used to catch cable thieves, and security guards were being recruited in theft hotpots, with the assistance of local traditional leaders, he said.

About 100 new class 22E Chinese and South African-built locomotives were being brought into service on the corridor, which itself would be restored to two lines by October.

Transnet has also changed its strategy, consolidating bulk freight business on to Richards Bay. At the same time it was seeking to recapture lost container, general freight, citrus, grains and auto business on Natcor.

A coordinated investment plan involving Transnet’s other arms was meanwhile helping, as was a relook at incentives to improve labour relations.

He said Transnet Freight Rail should not view road hauliers as competition, but as part of a broader, linked system, with trucks servicing rail nodes.

The forum heard that demand for two of the key bulk commodities moves – coal and iron ore – had grown, but shifting global trends, rising costs in South Africa, and increasingly competitive port-rail corridors elsewhere in
sub-Saharan Africa posed a threat to the parastatal and the South African economy in the medium term.

African News Agency (ANA)

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