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South Africa’s railway system is set to flourish under a boost of record investment aimed at turning the country into a key player in the global freight industry.

The development was first announced in 2012, when Transnet, South Africa’s state-owned ports and rail company, launched the Market Development Strategy, a seven-year R300bn ($33.82bn) investment scheme with a clear strategy to rejuvenate the country’s ports, rail and pipelines infrastructure.

A big portion of this investment is dedicated to rail. In March 2014, Transnet announced a R50bn ($4.26bn) contract with four manufacturers to build a 1,064-strong locomotive suite. The move marked the start of the biggest rail recapitalisation programme in the country’s history. China’s rolling stock manufacturers China North and South Rail won the lion’s share of the contract, followed by Bombardier Transportation and General Electric as key tenders.

Much more than just a development scheme, the project is an initiator of growth: by boosting the national freight volumes to unprecedented levels, with a particular focus on the country’s key industries of iron ore and coal, MDS is trusted to fuel a strong economy in South Africa.

Currently in its third year, the outlook of the plan is positive. The most recent development saw Transnet secure R13bn ($1.1bn) in funding to build its locomotive fleet. The financial backing announced on 2 March comes from a range of funders and financial institutions, including Barclays Africa, Investec, Standard Bank, Old Mutual and Export Development Canada. The money is funding locomotives from Bombardier and General Electric.

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By GlobalData

Most importantly, the deal marks the first tangible step towards South Africa’s ambition to accommodate the fifth-largest railway system in the world by 2019.

South Africa’s focus on freight: from road to rail

Despite a few ventures over the past five years which aimed to rebalance the transport sector, rail had been losing out in favour of road investment, especially when it came to freight transportation.

Whether by derailments, collisions or level crossing incidents, around 15,000 people die every year on India’s creaking railways.

In 2013, about 734 million tons of freight was moved in South Africa, according to an Oxford Business Group (OBG) report, out of which nearly 71% was moved by road, despite the fact that railways make up 80% of Africa’s infrastructure, according to a PWC report.

Now, over the next four years, South Africa will shift its freight from road to rail, cutting both enormous logistical costs and carbon emissions in the process. According to the Market Development Strategy overview, “rail volumes are projected to increase from approximately 200 million tons to 350 million tons” by the end of the programme.

Given this predicted growth in cargo volumes, the government has also launched the National Infrastructure Plan (NIP), a wide-ranging scheme planning to put 4.3 trillion rand ($407bn) towards new infrastructure and upgrading the existent networks across a vast array of sectors. In particular, the second of its 18 Strategic Integrated Projects looks at improving the rail corridor between Durban and Gauteng, South Africa’s main industrial centres.

Operating in conjunction with the NIP, the National Transport Master Plan aims to invest R751.74bn ($71.2bn) in infrastructure projects until 2050, with 43% of this expected to be dedicated to the rail segment.

Increased tonnage by rail will improve the country’s overall efficiency, explains Mike Asefovitz, senior media relations Manager at Transnet.

“Our aim is to lower the cost of doing business in South Africa. As we increase our efficiency and become a more reliable transporter, that will transpose into the rest of the economy,” Asefovitz says.

“What we anticipate is that this capital investment will give us an additional 128 million tons of rail volume. So by the end of the seven-year period, we are looking at transporting some 344 million tons of commodities. And that’s really what rail is: a bulk business.”

“Our aim is to lower the cost of doing business in South Africa.”

“Long distances and big volumes is what makes us more cost-effective. And this cost-efficiency gets passed onto the customers.”

Transforming rail infrastructure will have a direct impact on the country’s key industries, in particular mining. One of the initiatives already in place is upping capacity on the country’s coal transport line, Asefovitz explains, by running 200 wagon trains instead of the former 100 wagon trains.

With the introduction of a further 1,300 diesel and electric locomotives by 2019, the general freight business is bound to expand and strengthen.

The locomotive acquisition deal should also prove to be a significant milestone in the country’s ambition for financial autonomy. In keeping with its promise to become an original equipment manufacturer, all the locomotives, apart from the first 70, will be built in South Africa, using a majority of locally-sourced components and opening up the job market. By 2019, a total of R7,7bn ($631m) will be spent specifically on skills development and staff training as part of the market strategy.

“The intention is that, with time, we will become an exporter of locomotives,” says Asefovitz. “We spent a lot of money on training staff to ensure we have the right staff for the future, and that is going to be our competitive advantage.”

“We are looking at growing a business, we are looking at becoming the fifth-largest railway in the world, and we are on track to do that.”

Decades of underinvestment

Until recently, South Africa’s rail suffered from 30 years of underinvestment. In OBG’s 2013 overview of South Africa’s economy, Tsepho Lucky Montana, group CEO at Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa, deplored the current state of the country’s railways, saying: “South Africa had the capacity to design, manufacture and maintain trains back in the 1960s and 1970s, but that capacity has been lost over three decades of underinvestment in passenger and freight rails.”

Despite the EU’s efforts to establish a fairer set of rights for rail passengers, extensive exemptions allow easy loopholes.

The undermining of the rail freight industry was the result of an aggressive road de-regulation initiative that first started with the Road Transport Act in 1977. The Act increased the maximum road payload capacity to 22 tons per vehicle, surpassing the payload limit of 20 tons per train wagon. Later on, legislation further increased the limits up to 45 tons per vehicle. A clear preference for road transportation was formed, much at the expense of rail.

In his opening address at a 2011 Railways & Harbours Conference, Jeremy Cronin, South Africa’s Transport Deputy Minister noted that, by 1986, “about 60% of the rail network was being used at less than half of its practical capacity”.

Over the following 20 years, operational and logistical costs of heavy road tonnage soared, putting a major strain on the economy.

A not-so-smooth ride: challenges lie ahead

In May 2010, Transnet was hit by a series of prolonged strikes sparked by over 54,000 of its employees demanding higher pay. Inability to settle a deal quicker led to an almost complete stall in exports as both passenger and freight rail came to a standstill. Faced with the inability to export their resources, the country’s coal, iron ore and fruit industries were hit the hardest.

Now, South Africa is rushing to strengthen the relationship between its mining industry and railway system. Transnet’s market strategy specifically highlights its ambition to transport 98 million tons of coal per year by 2019, a total 44% increase arching over seven years, with a further 57% increase in iron ore over the same period.

But OBG’s analysis warned that “the plan is something of a gamble” and noted that “Transnet will need to grow its volumes substantially to meet further growth targets. Quoted in OBG’s 2013 report, Jackie Walters, the head professor at the Department of Transport and Supply Chain Management at the University of Johannesburg, said: “Transnet is investing R300bn but I’m not convinced that they will get enough traffic to justify the investment.”

Mike Asefovitz admits the investment is a huge leap of faith when it comes to predicting the demand market for all the transported goods.

“One of the big mental leaps that we took in implementing the MDS is that we are putting capacity ahead of demand.”

“One of the big mental leaps that we took in implementing the MDS is that we are putting capacity ahead of demand,” he says. “A lot of people asked how we can do this when we don’t even know the markets are there. ”

“But we believe that when the absolute comes, we will then be ready to deal with those increased volumes. If you look at our main exports like coal and iron ore, their prices on international markets have halved, yet our volumes have gone up.”

However, this year, a series of power blackouts since February put South Africa’s future economic growth at risk. A faulty and under-maintained power grid is to blame for a severe country-wide electricity crisis. The longest blackout reached its seventh consecutive day at the time of writing, according to Reuters. With experts predicting that power shortages could last for years, this poses a serious threat to the country’s overall productivity, including rail activity and export volumes.

To tackle the crisis, Transnet’s long-standing chief executive Brian Molefe left his position on 17 April to join power utility firm Eksom, where he was appointed acting CEO. His leadership is expected to find a rapid solution to the country’s crumbling power supply.

Furthermore, Bombardier Transportation, one of Transnet’s main partners in the current R6.99bn ($596.67m) locomotive deal, is at the centre of a corruption scandal regarding a past South African train contract.

Bombardier was previously involved in the construction process of Gautrain, the country’s first metro connecting Johannesburg to Pretoria.

The manufacturer is currently under investigation by South Africa’s corruption watchdog for allegations of bribery and questionable fees paid as part of the $3bn Gautrain deal between 2006 and 2012. Bombardier denies all allegations.

It remains to be seen what impact these challenges will have on the plan’s delivery. But if we were to believe Transnet’s announcement during the economic crisis that “slow economic growth will not hamper investment”, it would seem that we can soon expect a new generation of railway infrastructure across South Africa.