Africa’s biggest freight rail market set for private operator participation

29th March 2024 By: Bloomberg

Africa’s biggest freight rail market set for private operator participation

Photo by: Creamer Media

Africa’s biggest freight rail market is on the cusp of being transformed by private operators, the head of the operator of the continent’s largest rolling-stock fleet said.

The South African government is about to publish a so-called rail network statement that will propose rules for private rail participation in the hitherto State-run and operated sector, James Holley, CEO of Johannesburg-based Traxtion Africa, said this month. Those rules will be set after public consultation.

“We are all standing on the edge of the precipice. We’ve got to take the step,” Holley said at an infrastructure conference organised by Ninety One in Johannesburg. “And that starts with the network statement in April.”

The document is part of a broad plan spearheaded by the office of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to fix the country’s struggling ports and rail system. Its aim is to boost private participation in the industry, which until now has been run by State logistics monopoly Transnet.

That monopoly has been plagued by years of mismanagement and corruption scandals resulting in the ports being some of the world’s least efficient, and coal and iron-ore railings to ports falling to multidecade lows.

Over the past five years, the amount of goods and commodities transported by the State-run freight rail system has plunged to about 150-million tons from 226-million tons, the government said in the plan, the Freight Logistics Roadmap. Miners, desperate to get their goods to ports, have resorted to trucks, damaging national roads. That, and the fact that at 23 000 km South Africa accounts for 85% of Africa’s rail network, is an opportunity for private operators, said Holley. While the network needs to be upgraded, that’s cheaper than building new lines, he said.

South Africa’s rail demand is based on the continent’s biggest coal, iron-ore, chrome and manganese industries as well as a busy container line that runs between the country’s biggest port, Durban, and its commercial hub of Johannesburg.