More than 3 600 kilometres of South Africa’s railway tracks have fallen into disuse between April 1994 to the end of November 2023.
This is according to a parliamentary response by Minister of Public Enterprises, Pravin Gordhan, following questions by DA MP, Leon Schreiber, about Transnet Freight Rail railway tracks that had fallen into disuse since April 1994 and copper cables stolen since April 2019.
“A total of 3 636 kilometres of railway track have fallen into disuse since April 1994 to the end of November 2023.
“TFR has lost 4 633 kilometres of copper cable through theft from 2019/20 financial year to date as of the end of October 2023,” To Gordhan said.
Schreiber said the figures showed enough railway track to cover a roundtrip on the previously-popular freight corridor from Johannesburg to Durban – three times over.
“The ANC has presided over the destruction of 10 kilometres of railway lines per month, every single month, for the past 30 years. ”
According to Schreiber, the figure representing copper theft was also a “vast undercount”, as it does not include the copper cable lost by other government entities.
Africa Rail Industries Association (ARIA), CEO Mesela Kope-Nhlapo, said they had previously reported that ARIA estimates that TFR had underspent on track maintenance by a minimum of R30 billion over the last 11 years.
“This has left the track in a very poor condition. South Africa has a massive installed track network of some 23 000 route km, approximately 85% of Africa’s track network is in SA.
Transnet is the sole custodian of this network and needs to maintain all of it with the income it generates. ARIA believes that only about 40% of the total installed track base is commercially viable on a stand-alone basis.
The cutback on maintenance over the last decade has accelerated the decline in track conditions.
“However ARIA fully supports utterances by Transnet in the past that most of the non-profitable lines should be lifted - leaving the country with a smaller but commercially viable and highly efficient freight rail network. If you look internationally in North America for example, from 1980 approximately 50% of the track network was lifted, while volumes moved, doubled.
“In SA we need to do more with less,” Kope-Nhlapo said.
According to ARIA there is no short-term solution.
“However, by stabilising Transnet, government can significantly reduce the negative economic impact. The new interim Transnet Leadership working with the National Logistics Crisis Committee (NLCC) seems to be making some positive progress in this regard.
“The long-term sustainability of transport in SA depends on National Government’s successful implementation of the National Rail Policy and the Freight Logistics Roadmap.
“These documents call for the private sector to fund track concessions to improve the quality of the track network and for private trains to be introduced to compliment Transnet and grow tonnages – the two (infraupgrades and private trains) are inextricably linked.
“We believe the appetite is there from the private sector but, while the new policies lay a good platform, the detailed terms and conditions, which are still unknown at this stage, need to render these projects investable.
They are complex projects and the successful implementation of them require the kind of all-hands-on-deck processes that government has put in place through the NLCC. Implementation needs to come quickly, however, as freight volumes are being lost and the network condition continues to deteriorate and at some stage, the investibility of these vital projects will come into question.”
In December last year, Cabinet approved the Freight Logistics Roadmap, which outlines three areas of intervention to improve rail performance including returning long-standing locomotives to service through agreements with Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) to ensure a supply of spares, or through the appointment of a step-in OEM, as well as security and safety of the rail network and capital investment for expansion plans.
Transnet said it would comment on the matter on Friday, while police did not respond to requests for comment on criminal investigations by deadline on Thursday.