A weighty issue

A weighty issue

South Africa’s road network is in a terrible state of disrepair, and things are only getting worse. As a result, the National Treasury has tasked the Department of Transport (DoT) with finding a solution to save our roads. The DoT in turn informed local transport operators and stakeholders that it intended to pass legislation lowering legal load limits. Is this a justifiable means of fixing the problem, or is the DoT simply passing the buck? NADINE VON MOLTKE weighs up both sides of the argument.

In early October, the DoT dropped a bombshell. It sent a letter of intent to the Road Freight Association (RFA) indicating that “Most of the secondary road networks has [sic] reached a state of disintegration, thus necessitating measures to be put in place in order to salvage these road networks.”

According to the DoT, these proposed changes include lowering the axle load limit from 9 000 kg to 8 000 kg; prohibiting the operation of certain axle loads from the secondary networks; and prohibiting the transportation of certain commodities on both primary and secondary networks, migrating them to the rail network instead.

Naturally, these intentions were not well received by the local road freight industry, despite the DoT’s obvious disarray in its approach to the situation.

The RFA, who immediately contacted the DoT following the receipt of the letter of intention, quickly discovered that there were no clear answers to be had from the DoT regarding its proposed intentions.

“There were a number of unclear points in the letter and we wanted to clarify precisely what the DoT’s intentions were,” explains Gavin Kelly, RFA’s technical and operations manager. “For example, only single rear-axle loads were referred to in the letter, not multiple rear-axle loads; yet, when we phoned the DoT, is was indicated that this was an error and multiple rear-axles would indeed be affected – by 1 000 kg per axle. This can make a huge difference to an operator.”

However, this was one of the only clarifying answers the RFA received. The DoT could not clarify which goods were even under consideration to be moved to rail or agree on what qualified as a primary road, although it was indicated that national roads and primary roads were probably one and the same.

“The one thing that the various people whom we spoke to at the DoT did agree on was that the RFA would be contacted by the consultants appointed to research this very issue,” continues Kelly. “The problem is that we have never heard of this consulting firm. Who are they, and are they qualified to be conducting research that affects not only the road freight industry, but the economy as a whole?”

In fact, when the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) – which is widely acknowledged as the DoT’s main research institution – was contacted by the RFA, it quickly became apparent that the CSIR project leader in this area was unaware of any such proposal to amend the National Road Traffic Act until so informed by the RFA.

“The CSIR is not even aware of any research commissioned to support the proposal date,” states Kelly, “although we were told that similar research had been commissioned in 2001 and the CSIR recommended against reducing axle load limits.”

“If this legislation is implemented, it could have a serious impact on the road freight industry,” explains Sharmini Naidoo, CEO of the RFA. “It will affect operators, manufacturers, customers and, eventually, consumers.

“Possible effects include higher pricing, lower gross vehicle mass (GVM), reduced payloads, the doubling of logistics costs, more vehicles on our roads and changed vehicle specifications,” she adds.

Frank Beeton, a consultant at Econometrix and a FOCUS columnist, says that the planned changes have the potential to do severe damage to the economy, as well as create confusion in the transportation sector if government prescribes what goods are allowed to travel by rail and road.

“It’s impossible at this stage to quantify the potential damage this would do to our economy, because it would depend on how strategic the commodities are being moved,” he explains. “The volumes being moved to rail would also have to be quite substantial, or there would be no point.”

This is why the DoT’s proposed legislation changes are a problem that needs to be addressed, despite the department’s seeming lack of efficiency with regards to its intentions.

“If we ignore this proposal because the DoT appears to be disorganised, we run the risk of legislation being passed without us even lifting a finger,” says Kelly. “This is not a situation we can afford to ignore. We need the voice of the road freight industry to be heard, and we need public support on our side.”

However, even though the DoT’s new road freight strategy project might take a while to implement, particularly as the local rail network is not only infamous for its crumbling infrastructure, but also currently operating at full capacity, the DoT’s intentions have brought the state of South Africa’s road network under the spotlight.

According to the DoT’s chief director: eastern corridor, Clement Manyungwana’s response to the RFA concerning the letter of intention, data show that the current road network has a five-year lifespan left before collapse. In addition, there are simply no funds available to continually sustain repair and maintenance on the network.

In short, a solution must be found. The question remains whether the roads are in a state of disrepair because of overloaded trucks or because the government has not maintained the network as it should. Unfortunately, given the current state of affairs, it almost seems a moot point. Something needs to be done; it’s just a question of what.

“Basically, successful economic development over the past few years has boosted economic growth, which in turn has boosted further investment in local infrastructure, development and ultimately the number of trucks on the road,” explained Prasanth Mohan, director: infrastructure network managment, DoT, speaking at a Hino-hosted Road Transport Management System (RTMS) workshop.

The problem, of course, is that road infrastructure has not kept up with this development, particularly the secondary road network.

“From 1970 to 2000, paved national and provincial roads in South Africa doubled, but the number of goods vehicles on our roads quadrupled,” said Paul Nordengen, RTMS chairman and a speaker at the Hino-hosted workshop.

“This number has increased again by 32% since 2000.” So, the development of South Africa’s road network has not kept up with other infrastructural and consumer developments. There are more trucks on the roads without more roads being built.

There are some arguments that blame this development on the virtual collapse of the rail system. However, while certain commodities would most certainly be better suited to rail, many of these would still need to be transported short distances by road, and road transport tends to be more cost and time efficient as well.

In fact, much like South Africa (where road freight accounts for 80% of all goods moved), road freight accounts for 72% of the total freight transport volume in Germany (and this with an efficient rail network in place).

So what is the problem and why is our local network so badly damaged?

“We have been facing a decline in our road network for two decades,” admitted Mohan. “If we grow any further without our road network keeping up, we are heading for disaster.”

“The problem is that the DoT does not have the money to maintain our roads,” says Gavin Kelly. “It’s looking for solutions too, but it’s our industry that is going to end up paying the price for these solutions if the proposed legislation comes into play.”

The DoT does not necessarily agree, and draws attention to the problem of overloading which is prevalent on South African roads instead. “South Africa is competitive in terms of road design,” said Mohan. “They are designed with a 20-year lifespan, based on local conditions.”

However, these local conditions do not include extreme temperature changes, snow or ice. “This means that we do not need a thick waterproofing layer as European roads do,” explained Mohan. It is the waterproofing layer that is so strong and can withstand more wear and tear. Our local roads lack such a thick (and expensive) upper layer, which is why overloading, speeding and poor vehicle maintenance will cause such damage to our local roads.

“In addition, rural roads are simply not built to withstand trucks. They should not be there, and instead we find that 41% of trucks are found speeding on these roads, and many are overloaded.”

The result is a stand-off: the road infrastructure is not built to withstand extreme loads or speeding and road maintenance is not performed regularly; but on the other hand, overloading and poor driving remain a problem damaging the secondary road network in particular.

“If we put figures to the problem, the current value of our road network is R1 trillion, the maintenance backlog amounts to
R100 billion (and R95 billion on provincial roads), annual maintenance required would cost R32 billion, but current expenditure amounts to R8 billion,” revealed Nordenegen.

“Unfortunately, this problem is compounded by overloaded trucks,” he continued. “Cars cause little if any damage to roads. Of the heavy vehicles on our roads, 80 to 85% adhere to legal load limits. These cause approximately 40% of the damage to our roads. The remaining 15 to 20%, which are overloaded, cause 60% of the damage to our roads.”

The fact that trucks damage roads should come as no surprise to anyone and is the reason behind expensive permits, toll fees and road taxes. However, is the DoT’s proposed plan of action fair, or even a reasonable solution to the problem?

“The trucking industry more than pays its way through toll fees, permits, licensing fees, fuel and other taxes,” says Naidoo. “Very little of this is redistributed to the trucking industry.” It is also clearly not being utilised effectively in terms of road maintenance either.

A weighty issueIn fact, the lack of funds being channelled into road maintenance is not the only problem. South Africa’s legislation governing safe truck driving practices, overloading and even basic road worthiness is historically lacking, prompting industry to follow self-regulating practices.

This is achieved through the RFA, which has certain set standards and requirements it exacts from its members, and programmes such as the RTMS, which is a voluntary, self-regulating system that if followed promises compliance, the improvement of road safety, productivity and, of course, the protection of local resources and infrastructures.

“The idea behind RTMS was the question: do we sit back as an industry and watch what is happening to our roads, trucks and businesses, or, for our own interests, do we get involved and increase the level of professionalism within our industry?” said Nordengen.

The problem with the DoT’s proposal is that these are the operators who will most likely be affected by it – the companies that are already self-regulated and adhering to load specifications. Without proper regulatory measures, the new legislation will not solve the problem of operators who do overload. It also does not promise that more money will be spent on the roads for regular, necessary maintenance.

“In fact, a number of issues do not appear to have been considered,” says Kelly. “The proposed reductions in axle masses could result in a 12% decrease in payload, proportional to a 12% reduction in revenue to operators.

“In some cases, operators could lose up to 5 t payload. These costs would then have to be passed down to the customer, and ultimately the consumer,” he explains. “This means an additional cost to consumer of approximately R14 for every R100. And this is a conservative assumption.”

Kelly also points out that it is impractical for hauliers to operate solely on primary networks. “This means that all vehicles would need to adhere to the new restrictions or trans-shipment centres would need to be created, where loads are moved to smaller vehicles. This would result in additional costs, increased supply chains, longer delivery times and increased standing times. It would also compromise the ‘just-in-time’ efficiencies of road transport that have become a global trend. South Africa as a whole would become less globally competitive.”

The new legislation would also result in more, rather than fewer, trucks on the road, particularly in the short term, depending on how long it would take for the rail infrastructure to pick up road volumes.

Manufacturers’ costs would also soar, as vehicles would need to be re-configured for the new combinations. This cost would also ultimately be passed on to the consumer.

“Finally, there are safety considerations too. Bulk flammable liquids and gas vehicles are currently configured for maximum permissible mass,” says Kelly. “Meeting axle-mass load reductions would create an empty space in tanker compartments, increasing the risk of combustion.”

In short, the proposed changes in legislation do not seem suited to solving the road infrastructure problems South Africa is facing, particularly as billions of rands will still be needed to maintain these roads, and the culprits damaging the roads will still be overloading, speeding and braking poorly.

However, a problem certainly exists, and if the road infrastructure continues its unabated decay, everyone loses, from operators to those reliant on the goods they deliver, to everyday motorists. A solution does need to be found and, hopefully, with a bit of cooperation between the DoT, the road freight industry and consultants producing reliable and accurate research, this will be achieved before things get any worse.

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Focus on Transport

FOCUS on Transport and Logistics is the oldest and most respected transport and logistics publication in southern Africa.
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