3 years ago

Opportunity Issue 93 - March 2020

  • Text
  • Economic
  • Economy
  • Businesses
  • Regulator
  • Electricity
  • Innovation
  • Infrastructure
  • African
  • Cape
  • Ensure


STRAPLINE Transport infrastructure On track for development Managing rail upgrades effectively is key to a fair transition to unlock growth in Africa Rail infrastructure is recognised as a key component of economic growth globally. In South Africa, the state has committed to spending billions on rail upgrades over the next decade. The real challenge around this investment is precisely where and when to do the upgrades, and what form they will take. The National Rail Policy Draft White Paper 1 outlined plans to return rail to being the country’s national land transport backbone by 2050, and speaks of rail upgrades being the country’s “largest infrastructure project ever”. Managing rail upgrades effectively can unlock growth throughout Africa. The question is, how does one go about it? There are essentially two approaches. The Big Bang This approach sees South Africa’s current cape-gauge rail network as potentially outdated and fundamentally limiting, and proposes a broad, thorough and drastic upgrade of our entire rail infrastructure from cape gauge to standard grade as quickly as possible. South Africa’s first four railway lines (Durban-Point, Cape Town- Eersterivier, Eersterivier-Stellenbosch and Cape Town-Wellington), totalling about 110km, were built on 1 435mm standard gauge between 1860 and 1867. In 1875, the Cape and Natal governments adopted the 1 067mm cape gauge, arguing it would be more economical for mountainous terrain. What a decision! By 1881 all existing networks were converted to cape gauge and all future networks were built on the cape gauge. That is where we are today. However, engineering analysis as early as 1978 indicated that the 1875 decision was short-sighted as standard gauge would have facilitated greater stability, passenger comfort, higher speeds, less restrictions on locomotive design, free availability of rolling stock and many other benefits 2 . There is merit to this idea, in that standard gauge supports high-speed rail while cape gauge does not. The standard–gauge system further supports metro rapid-rail projects and is the recommended system for future passenger rail expansion networks. The renewed interest in railways, the “Railway Renaissance”, and the chance to integrate with other modes of transport is a great opportunity for railway engineers. Converting the country’s cape-gauge network to standard gauge could facilitate economic growth, generate thousands of jobs, provide multiplier benefits and lift the spirit of our nation. It would also help South Africa keep pace with the infrastructure growth of the rest of the world and Chinese-led initiatives in Africa. The White Paper 1 notes that narrowgauge track reduces rail’s inherent competitiveness, making it easy for road transport to encroach on rail's natural freight and passenger domains, and for other countries to compete with our exports. It goes on to call for a standardgauging investment. The long-term view of a change to standard gauge is valid, but the question of how to get there is infinitely more complex than a simple Big Bang approach. Rail planners must measure the utilisation of current networks, and project the likely returns of upgrades to determine if they are viable. The approximately 33 000km of South African rail lines are at varying levels of utilisation, quality and viability. A sophisticated model is required to determine where rail upgrades would be most productive. This calls for… 8 |

Transport infrastructure STRAPLINE A gradual transition Due to the many variables of rail travel, and the long lead times of upgrades, strong, thorough viability analysis and modelling is required up front. The viability of freight railway upgrades, for instance, are contingent upon the fortunes of the industries they enable. Coal freight needs will depend on coal demand, the country’s energy policy, the move to renewables, and the state of Eskom. Similarly, complex variables determine the viability of freight lines moving minerals such as chrome, ferrochrome, magnetite and manganese, as well as agricultural produce to markets and ports. Some routes will certainly benefit from a standard-gauge upgrade supporting rapid-rail, high-speed and heavy-haul axle loads. However, other lines are already underutilised. For these lines, money would be better spent improving efficiency and marketing them better. Time to innovate To continue the evolution of South Africa’s rail network – and the African continent at large – will require engineering, as well as financial innovation. Main routes – such as Johannesburg to Durban and Cape Town – would certainly benefit from infrastructure upgrades like a transition to standard gauge. This would boost rail’s effectiveness and encourage the road-to-rail transition crucial for South Africa’s economic growth. Despite the benefits, financing infrastructure upgrades like a standardgauge transition would be challenging, given constrained government budgets and the mountainous terrains of these routes. This calls for finance innovation, such as public-private partnerships. If we are to move towards standard gauge, the transition period must also be considered. We cannot close the 698km Johannesburg-Durban freight line for five years while we build a new one. Because the old and the new lines will have to coexist, there is scope for creative engineering to support this transition. Lines could be revamped in sections, or adjustable bogies could be designed to function on cape and standard gauges. We could investigate customising existing rail lines to the wider gauge. However, in the freight space, interoperability is crucial. The complexity of managing a single-gauge network is already challenging and adding standard–gauge challenges to the mix will not necessarily improve efficiencies. This is especially so when you consider that most current freight delays are due to shunting, marshalling and depot delays, and incidents (including vandalism) en route. The rail networks in South Africa are in need of upgrades. However, upgrading effectively is crucial. If we manage the process well, we can bring South Africa and the African continent in line with the rest of the world and unlock the full potential of our economy. However, rail upgrades are among the most costly projects a country can undertake. We dare not rush into this wildly. In planning for infrastructure-led growth, we need to start where that infrastructure can make the biggest difference, for the most people. Fana Marutla, Technical Executive & Head of Business Development, Transportation at GIBB Engineering & Architecture, and President of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering. References 1. 2. Dept. of Civil Engineering – Chair in Railway Engineering, Univ. of Pretoria, 2014 | 9

Other recent publications by Global Africa Network: