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South Africa plans major rail improvements

October 1, 2022
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Why this is important to Wisconsin businesses: Wisconsin is an important intermodal logistics center with technical expertise that could help Africa’s transportation networks grow.

South Africa’s rail network is the eleventh largest in the world, with nearly 14,000 miles of track and connections throughout much of the continent. This network makes up 80% of total rail lines in Africa.

But much of the railroad infrastructure has become obsolete and underutilized. The two main companies operating the railroads are struggling with financial and management problems. In addition, vandalism has been a serious problem, as has the theft of overhead cables and other materials that have been sold for scrap metal.

South Africa’s government wants to turn that around and create a “railway renaissance.” The Department of Transport released a White Paper on National Rail Policy in May with a list of plans to update and improve both freight and passenger lines. A key element involves opening the system to private sector investment and involvement.

Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula said private sector participation in infrastructure repairs and expansion will improve rural access, increase mobility, and create jobs, all of which will contribute to economic development throughout South Africa. At the same time, it will put the railroad network on more solid ground, he said.

“Research conducted shows that these interventions will undoubtedly reposition both passenger and freight rail to achieve inherent competitiveness,” Mbalula said. “Government’s interventions to achieve a railway renaissance, the positioning of rail as a key contributor to economic transformation, and the reduction in harmful greenhouse gas emissions are clearly articulated in the policy document.”

The Department of Transport regulates all transportation in South Africa and oversees the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa, whose trains carry 2 million commuters a day, with 585 stations and 4,735 train cars. Meanwhile, the Department of Public Enterprises has authority over Transnet SOC, a state-owned company. Transnet Freight Rail is the largest railroad and heavy hauler in southern Africa, with about 12,400 miles of track, though less than half of the rail is electrified. In 2020, an annual payload of 192 million metric tons was moved on South Africa’s rail network with revenues of $2.4 billion, but that’s a fraction of the freight that is moved along the country’s highways.

There is also a high-speed line, owned by the Gauteng provincial government, that connects Johannesburg and Pretoria with the OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg and can transport as many as 40,000 people a day. The service began just before the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

A new high-speed rail project, announced in February, is expected to connect many of Africa’s major cities. Afrail Express, a partnership of Switzerland-based Afrailways and Groot Suisse Industries of Namibia, expects construction to begin in 2024 and the first operations to start in 2033. Rachel Long, vice president of corporate strategy at Afrail, said it will be “the largest industrial revolution happening on the continent of Africa,” according to the ESI Africa news service.

In South Africa, meanwhile, the government plans to spend $49 billion on transportation infrastructure by 2027, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration (ITA). In a report in September 2021, the ITA called railroad infrastructure a “best prospect industry sector.”

Wisconsin companies could have opportunities to participate in the plans for a rail rejuvenation in South Africa by providing goods and services such as transportation equipment and infrastructure, route design and network planning, business model analysis, new and refurbished locomotives, smart signaling and operations automation, automatic fare collection systems, and security and surveillance systems.


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