#163: Are missing railway lines derailing South Africa?

As an anchor for housing, business and industrial mobility and access rail transport infrastructure is synonymous with the spinal system of economic development. Compared to traditional road transport services, rail transport offers a lower cost for every kilometre each passenger seat or freight ton transported when distances exceed 200km. Such efficiencies come at the cost of laying out this long-term infrastructure, which sink into the public spending budgets because few private entities could build as much railway infrastructure as what is needed. So, governments must intervene. Trains and other forms of transport guided by infrastructure that can not be moved are limited by their inability to offer a door-to-door service. The services depend on the quality of the supply chain systems and infrastructure in place to support this type technology to complete trips. Combinations of different transport modes based on their inherent efficiencies is therefore, more important than only having one dominant mode. 

In the  political economic past of African countries, railway lines are like scars along the lines of deeply exploitative extractions based on cheap resources, cheap infrastructure and cheap labour.

The photo shows a road freight truck along the vanishing point, with a stolen railway line on the lower end of the vanishing point. Between the two, there is a bush, trees and powerlines against the backdrop of bright blue Limpopo skies.

ZEBIDIELA-LEBOWAKGOMO-POLOKWANE— Perhaps I’m on a mission to rerail places that used to have broad arrays of services justified by much more than economic merit. In the history of South African transport, there’s been substantial evidence of the non-monetary value of railway investment. This lasted for as long as the notion that railway services should be common carriers, taking on rural and urban communities for their unit value

When people commute to an eight hour work day, they should spend less than one hour to get to work. Just as much as when transporting goods, consignments should spend as small portion of time holding bays waiting to be transhipped. For passengers to experience this their jobs, opportunities and activities are located are an important factors in ensuring that mobility and access takes place at the right speed and in a reliable manner across various transport options. For freight forwarders to experience this primary, secondary and tertiary sector activities are interconnected with extracting resources, processing and producing final products for distribution. Both markets are increasingly demanding higher quality and more integrated services which require mobility to be a service and consignments to be broken down into much smaller parcels for consumer goods. This level of disaggregation, needs deeply integrated transportation networks between rural and urban activities to propel development. This brings us to the importance of competition in business practices, but complementarity along the value chain. 

The wealth of railways

When good railway systems serve a nation, they are associated with providing a viable alternative for road transport for the parts of the journey that terminate at 5km at a passenger interchange, or 10km to 100km close to a transshipment hub for freight consignments.  The door-to-door service comes from road transport. As Africa leans on the Continental Free Trade Area Agreement (CFTAA), the future of intra-Africa trade is expected to accelerate at unprecedented rates. Given the size of our continent, the proximity gap between major cities, talent (i.e. human resources), industries and respective customers increases the cost of doing business not because of distance, but rather how distances are managed within a system of transport alternatives. In the  political economic past of African countries, railway lines are like scars along the lines of deeply exploitative extractions based on cheap resources, cheap infrastructure and cheap labour. When the continental high-speed rail concept is discussed, it tends to be divorced from regional road transport corridors which reinforce regional possibilities to complete trips by road. At a local level, using each mode for its inherent advantages is a source of quality, efficiency and lower costs. 

The returns on investing in technology are a missed opportunity for the state owned enterprise as it does well to manufacture trains domestically, but struggles to hold on to monitoring and acting on rail infrastructure. 

In South Africa, where the political history of state-owned infrastructure, systems and services were used to segregate, oppress and exploit one finds many cases in which rail infrastructure is used to ventilate frustrations and fund criminality at a high-cost to the nation. When stations and train sets are torched, employees and commuters suffer most because this reduces the quality of their service almost immediately. Simultaneously, when pieces of rail infrastructure such as cables and rail lines are stolen for the purpose of smelting and illegal trade these put regional connections at a standstill. Replacing damaged and stolen infrastructure takes much longer than buying groceries because public procurement systems are complex, specific and are subject to scrutinising the standards and quality of infrastructure laid out. At a macroeconomic level, this is a lost opportunity because access to special economic zones, towns and other emerging areas could be halted by lost infrastructure. This reduces the return on the average taxpayer’s investment in public goods and services provided by government systems. 

SHOSHOLOZA MEYL– As the landscape stretches by, greener pastures for rail transport infrustructure need nurturing. Riding along this journey, Jack Daniels included, one can see the stretch of roadway shimmering from the sun and wet plains. The track, in good condition as we roll parallel to it in admiration and pride. Who knew that these same tracks fed an economy of illicit trading at scale.

At the same time, this is room for innovation, why is it that Transnet can not detect when rail tracks are being tampered with? What kind of information systems do we have in the 21st Century that can not detect that cables are being tampered with? This is also a type of market failure, because assets need to be cared for, nurtured and maintained. The returns on investing in technology are a missed opportunity for the state owned enterprise as it does well to manufacture trains domestically, but struggles to hold on to monitoring and acting on rail infrastructure. 

In SA, this reduces the  return on investment from the fuel levy in particular, and is quite paradoxic. Reducing road traffic in a developing country with rising traffic volumes along national and local roads needs investment certainties in rail transport— be it high speed or not. This alternative is important because countries can not afford to maintain roadways that bear too much freight traffic as it increases the frequency of maintaining roadways (given the dominant tarmac) and makes driving more complex (and risky). Furthermore, the probability of traffic accidents could be reduced significantly if commuters were using rail transport services that were integrated with other modes at their respective destinations. Reducing this cost with rail transport alternatives could add long term value to how taxes are used in transportation. While at a local level vandalism, theft and the likes could serve an immediate need and reflect other sectors which need remedial action, the costs of crippling SA’s railway network could easily outlive many of the actor’s involved. Just as we now have inherited another generations’ decisions, we must be concerned about the ones we’re transferring to the one after us. 

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