Siyabonga Gama. Photo: Supplied
JOHANNESBURG - It is perhaps synchronistic that the country’s pre-eminent transport modes - rail and ports - are so inextricably linked, birthed together, you could say. It was in September 1859 that a steam locomotive from the Leith works in Scotland arrived by ship in Cape Town harbour.

As usual, commerce was the impetus for this intrepid journey. The locomotive was to ride the railway line from Wellington to Cape Town, the first tentative step in our nascent global export industry.

Despite a number of incarnations over the years - the Cape Government Railways (CGR), the Netherlands SA Railway Company (NZASM), South African Railways and Harbours (SAR&H), South African Transport Services (Sats), and finally Transnet - our nation’s rail and port network has proved to be remarkably tenacious and enduring.

Durban's container terminal posted a record performance in February.Photo: Supplied

For a country’s logistics system to be competitive, it needs a strong infrastructure backbone from which to strengthen all supply chains. It is supply chains which compete and therefore help South African companies to become competitive in the industries in which they operate.

There is no doubt, however, that decades of delinquent under-investment in freight systems have impacted on the country's ability to match world-best practice.

According to the 2016 World Bank report on logistics competitiveness, South Africa is ranked 20th in the world on the quality of its logistics. This is an improvement from a ranking of 34th in 2009 and ranks higher than most of our Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (Brics) partners and many European countries.

At Transnet, we continue to invest counter-cyclically - through the peaks and troughs of economic cycles - to both stimulate and reignite the economy to create and invent future periods of higher growth.

Investment alone is not the panacea towards improving logistics competitiveness. Transnet recognises that logistics productivity, continuous improvement and reliability are factors shaping South Africa’s ability to compete in global markets.

Since 2012, however, we have made some highly substantial and unprecedented investments in infrastructure. These include R107billion in our rail network, R18bn in our ports infrastructure and R17bn in the pipeline network that peregrinates our country.

We realised that successful delivery and implementation of our plans required a multidisciplinary approach and integrated teams working in unison across the company - all aligned on the "One Transnet" principle.

This means putting the customer at the centre by establishing and fostering a customer-centric culture, harnessing the creative and innovative capabilities of employees and collaborating and partnering with the private sector and other stakeholders.

These initiatives have contributed to significant improvement in our performance. The rail business has seen improvement in on-time departures from 47percent in 2013 to 87percent today. This has not only helped in running a more precise and scheduled railway but has played a pivotal role in reducing the overall train cycle times.

Our heavy haul lines - coal and iron ore - have seen an improvement of 18.5percent and 7.5percent per annum, respectively, while the general freight business cycle times improved by 6.1percent.

One of the general freight commodities, chrome, has seen volume growth in flows from Thabazimbi, Witbank, Rustenburg and Steelpoort to 5.77 million tons this year, setting a record and surpassing last year’s total volumes.

Our ports have shown similar improvements. In Durban, ship-waiting times have been reduced from eight days to one. Africa’s biggest and busiest container terminal, the Durban Container Terminal, ranks among the top in the world and operates as two terminals, Pier 1 and Pier 2, handling 65percent of South Africa’s container volumes. Ships now berth on arrival at Pier 1, that is, within two hours of arriving.

For the first time, all shipping line container vessels which called at Pier 2 achieved contracted berthing windows. This means that every vessel calling at the priority berths was serviced on-time and in full, as per contracted times.

The Durban container terminal also posted a record 198784 TEU performance in February, beating a target of 150384 TEUs. The twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) is a unit of cargo capacity used to describe the capacity of container ships and container terminals.

Our journey is far from over, but as we continue to build the necessary capability and capacity to ensure that we excel, we know that collaboration with customers and other supply chain service providers will assist us in our quest to improve customer service and operational efficiencies as an ongoing and embedded philosophy in everything that we do. We aim to become one of the top five logistics solutions providers in the world by 2025.

By working together, we can strengthen our country’s supply chain and help to position South African companies at the centre of global competitiveness.

Siyabonga Gama is the group chief executive of Transnet.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

- BUSINESS REPORT