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This graph shows when road overtook rail in South Africa

Road freight payload overtook rail freight payload in South Africa between 2017 and 2018, and has been consistently growing ever since while rail freight has declined.

As a result, a substantial 84.5% of all freight payload in the country is now transported via tarmac, in turn having a tremendous cost to the economy.

Not only do these heavy trucks accelerate the deterioration of the country’s ailing road infrastructure when moving goods inland, but transport via road remains notably more expensive than via rail which negatively impacts the prices of essential products and services.

The below graph, provided by fleet management company Ctrack, shows the growth in freight transport in South Africa between road and rail since 2008:

No short-term fix

Following five years of annual declines, rail freight payload increased by 2.5% in 2023 off an extremely low base, and continues to underperform amidst ongoing challenges plaguing the sector.

“Among others, large-scale theft of copper cables, insufficient maintenance, lack of locomotives, corruption, derailments, and vandalism on freight trains are common and hampering the sector’s performance,” said Ctrack.

The underachieving rail sector is hamstringing South Africa in more ways than one.

In a report titled “Decarbonising South Africa’s Transport Sector” published in 2023, the conclusion was reached that for the economy to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the transport sector to net zero by 2050, a sizeable 15-20% of road traffic must move to rail.

Additionally, this shift will be key in addressing road congestion and improving the efficiency of the overall transport system.

“Recent developments are encouraging, including the approval of the Freight Logistics Roadmap, the appointment of a permanent board for Transnet National Ports Authority, the passing of the Economic Regulation of Transport Bill, and the publication of a draft network statement detailing how private sector access will be governed,” said Ctrack.

The approval of the Freight Logistics Roadmap, which provides a path toward resolving immediate operational challenges driving the decline of rail and ports and outlines interventions required to restructure the logistics sector through policy and legislative interventions, is another boon for the industry.

Be that as it may, “a long road is ahead and any notable impact of interventions is only likely to be seen in the medium term,” said Ctrack.

The company highlighted that the logistics industry in South Africa requires extensive structural reform as it is an invaluable part of the economy’s revenue generators.

In February, the rail, road, pipeline, and storage sub-sectors declined on a monthly basis, with only the sea and air freight sectors expanding.

As such, Ctrack’s Transport and Freight Index which measures freight activity within the country dropped by 0.8% month-on-month to 118.6, reflecting its lowest point since February 2023.

“While the interdependence and intertwined nature of the logistics sector soften the overall impact of weakness in some sub-sectors, the sector remains overall on the back foot and in urgent need of intervention and structural reform,” concluded Ctrack.

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