An eye-opening trip down the N3

An eye-opening trip down the N3

GAVIN MYERS recently embarked on an informative road trip with the N3 Toll Concession (N3TC) from Gauteng to Kwa-Zulu Natal. He came back with a new respect for what it takes to manage and maintain one of the country’s busiest logistical arteries.

The N3 is a road of fascinating statistics. Traffic volumes on the road linking Gauteng and Durban range between 8 500 and 13 500 vehicles per day. During peak traffic periods this can spike to more than 3 000 vehicles per hour in certain sections!

Heavy vehicles constitute more than 30 percent of traffic on the route and an average of 58-million tonnes of freight is carried along this corridor per annum.

Without the N3 as a passageway for goods to move between the inland areas and the Port of Durban, the country would not be able to function. A national route of such importance requires dedicated management and support – just what the N3TC provides.

The N3TC manages the section of the route beginning at the Cedara interchange near Hilton, Pietermaritzburg, and ending at the Heidelberg South interchange in Gauteng – about 415 km in total. The sections of the N3 south of this to Durban and north to Johannesburg are operated by the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral).

Con Roux, commercial manager at the N3TC, explains the requirements of the 30-year concession contract between Sanral and the N3TC: “Our mandate is to, design, construct, finance, operate and maintain the 415 km section of the N3. It is very comprehensive contract that is well managed by Sanral; we have a great public-private partnership that is in everybody’s interest.”

Currently half way through the contract (which expires in October 2029) the N3TC has more than its “trucks in a row” when it comes to meeting its obligations. A lot more, in fact …

The weight of the law

Leaving Johannesburg, the first aspect of the N3TC one encounters is the Heidelberg Traffic Control Centre (HTCC); the “northern gateway”, as Roux describes it.

“The HTCC is a wonderful opportunity to check whether the south-bound trucks are roadworthy before they get further down the route. This is a primary aspect of road safety and we need more compulsory-stop facilities on the route. We have around 1 000 crashes a year on our section of the N3 and trucks are involved in over 50 percent of them,” he explains.

Fred Kleynhans, CEO of Zimele Investment Enterprises, which runs the HTCC, explains that the purpose of the facility is to ensure safety on the route by removing the hazards of overloading and poorly maintained vehicles from the road.

An eye-opening trip down the N3 Between 8 000 and 11 000 vehicles are weighed at the facility every month and the overloading factor is just three to five percent. However, there’s more to the HTCC than simply weighing …

The Vehicle Testing Station (VTS) facility was added in December 2014 at an investment of almost R25 million per side (north- and south-bound). The VTS is essential to the aim of removing unroadworthy trucks from the road before they get any further … one particular previous VTS inspection resulted in a shocking 70 percent of vehicles being taken off the road!

“Every vehicle found to be overloaded (or at an officer’s discretion) is sent to the VTS; where its brakes, lights, tyres, ball joints, steering rack, chassis, and so on, are tested while it is still overloaded,” explains Kleynhans.

Only then is a vehicle allowed to park at the holding facility to have the load – and any defects – rectified. It must then pass another VTS inspection before it can go back to the scale and carry on with its journey. The average “time in detention” is a costly five to six hours.

“Even the smallest overload causes a huge increase in strain on the vehicle’s mechanicals that can lead to failures along the route, for example at Van Reenen’s Pass,” Kleynhans cautions.

Grudge payment of funding for the future?

The first N3TC toll plaza vehicles have to pass through from Johannesburg is De Hoek, which caters for 2 500 vehicles per hour at peak capacity. All toll plazas on the N3 route are managed by the Tolcon Group, and the responsibility of running them falls on its operations manager, Paul Iyer.

An eye-opening trip down the N3 The collection of tolls from the N3TC’s five mainline and five ramp plazas is the only revenue stream for the concession – which is used to finance the cost of operations, and maintain and upgrade infrastructure. (Toll tariffs for the four vehicle classes are set by the minister of transport in accordance with a formula based on the initial toll tariffs and linked to annual CPI adjustments. They are adjusted and published in the Gazette annually.)

It is estimated that using the N3 route between Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal is safer and will save light vehicles 20 percent in fuel, wear and tear, running costs, and time.

Interestingly, the plazas themselves aren’t as simple as they seem. Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) is now in a testing phase as another option for convenient payment.

Each lane has load-shift sensors to alert truck drivers and toll collectors to this and an Automatic Vehicle Classification System (AVCS) uses laser technology to scan incoming vehicles and determine the correct class for billing. At the back-end, Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras and a Video Toll Audit System (VTAS) provide further physical evidence of each vehicle that passes through.

The heart of the beast

The N3TC Route Control Centre (RCC), managed by N3TC route control manager Annatjie van der Sandt, is the centre that ensures the N3 operates smoothly.

Centrally located at Harrismith, communication is the name of the game at the RCC … up to four operators man the RCC, where calls from travellers are received, pertinent information is sent out and an incident coordination function is performed.

“We started the call centre 2008. Before that yellow SOS phone boxes were available every two kilometres along the route …” Van der Sandt smiles. The RCC fields calls from commuters reporting animals, debris, accidents, blown tyres, smoke, and so on, along the route, but it is so much more than a call centre.

In the case of an accident being called in, two of the operators are qualified ambulance assistants, who used to work in emergency call centres – meaning they are skilled to understand what’s happening on the other end of the line and can keep callers calm. The RCC will then send N3TC route patrollers to assess the scene and notify emergency services.

The RCC records all calls in an electronic occurrence book and an internal system captures all information about accidents. From this, statistics are generated and this information is used to implement engineering interventions to alleviate the probability of accidents.

An eye-opening trip down the N3 The 17 variable message signboards, strategically located along the N3, are controlled from the RCC. Scheduled messages run daily, but if an incident occurs the messages are changed to alert drivers.

“Twitter is also extremely important to our function,” Van der Sandt explains. “We tweet accident notifications, weather warnings, information on how to report incidents and we engage with travellers.”

Currently the N3TC has around 50 000 followers. “Now that there’s widespread use of Twitter our incoming calls have decreased by around 2 000 a month, but at peak times this can be as high as 7 000,” she continues.

“To the best of our knowledge, our use of Twitter was the first initiative of its kind,” Roux adds.

Emergency situation

Van Reenen’s Pass is easily the most notorious and dangerous section of the N3 route. The long, often steep descent is harsh on braking systems; wind howls along the pass with the change of season and snow often renders it impassable. Stationed at the top of the pass is the Van Reenen Emergency Centre.

Miles le Roux, transportation manager, N3TC, shows us the centrepiece of the operation: a MAN tanker that doubles as a brine dispenser and fire truck. The brine is sprayed on the road before it snows to stop the formation of black ice. “The snow zone is halfway down the pass, from the lower arrestor bed to Harrismith,” explains Le Roux.

“When it begins to snow we try to keep traffic moving. The heat from the vehicles passing prevents snow from gathering on the road,” he says, adding that the Free State roads department and even a local farmer have graders on standby to clear snow if needed.

“If a truck jackknives on Van Reenen’s Pass in snow, we have to close the road at Harrismith and Tugela. If snow is very heavy we will close the road anyway,” Le Roux continues. Since you can’t tell the road from the surrounding landscape in such weather, the team has some quad bikes at hand to travel up the road and tell truckers that it’s closed for business.

Out of snow season the vehicle is used as a fire truck for veld and vehicle fires. Its skilled operators are trained firemen, too. Foam is carried for petrol or diesel fires, and Le Roux explains that the aim is to put out brake/tyre fires. “Vehicle fires often start here and we have to get to it quickly to stop it from spreading.”

An eye-opening trip down the N3 As the nearest fire station is in Ladysmith, the Van Reenen Emergency Centre also helps with community fires.

Wind is another danger that requires some strategic thinking from this team … Wind can reach speeds of 141 km/h up the pass, and start blowing trucks over at 126 km/h. When wind reaches more than 80 km/h warnings are sent out by the RCC.

“Truckers know where the problem areas are and stop when they get there. We try to sort the vehicles and protect the light, unladen ones by placing them on the inside lane with the heavy, laden ones on the outside, and sending them along in convoy,” Le Roux explains.

World-class road incident management

The N3TC route is divided up into six sections. Each section has one Route Services patrol vehicles and a Specialist Incident Manager (SIM). Each vehicle is manned by two people and must cover its section twice in a 12-hour shift.

They are in direct contact with the RCC (that knows exactly where each vehicle is, thanks to their Ctrack tracking systems). Fully kitted out, each vehicle costs in the region of R750 000 and can perform a variety of operations.

“When sweeping they will stop at crash scenes, remove any objects on the road, help customers who have broken down, remove any stray animals from the road and report anything suspicious,” Le Roux explains, imploring motorists to also report these to the RCC, noting the route markers every 200 m along the route.

The average response time is required to be 45 minutes, but the team far outpaces this with the longest recorded time being 28 minutes. When the roads are busiest, patrollers do three sweeps per shift and an extra vehicle covers Van Reenen’s Pass.

The vehicles and their drivers are equipped and trained for minor assistance and first-on-scene first aid. At a crash scene, their primary role is to act as the scene coordinator, securing the scene and getting it open as soon as possible, so no subsequent crashes occur.

An eye-opening trip down the N3 The route services and SIMs are trained in accordance with the Road Incident Management System (RIMS). Praveen Sunderlall, regional RIMS manager for KwaZulu-Natal, explains that RIMS is the third iteration of an approach that has evolved over 25 years. “It is to ensure that at every scene there is coordination, communication and cooperation with set procedures that must be followed. It is this component that saves lives.”

The Route Services also embarks on a variety of special operations, often in conjunction with the South African Police Service (SAPS), to check dangerous goods compliance (about 93 percent are in compliance); target stopping on freeways at night and roadside vending; animal operations; and night-time visibility operations.

“During night operations we have found car carriers with people and drums of diesel in the cars on the trailer,” Sunderlall reveals to a group of stunned journalists …

Doing it for, and with, the people

Our final stop on the N3TC trip is the Mpofana PPP at the Mooi River plaza. This is an example of how a public-private partnership should work. Sunderlall talks us though the various aspects of the initiative.

“Our analysis shows that most accidents occur between 22:00 and 06:00, when there is little enforcement. We entered into a public-private partnership with the Mpofana municipality to employ traffic officers. We train and pay them. We also pay for two branded vehicles. It’s a three-year pilot project (of which there are ten months left) that has yielded great dividends. The number of accidents has been reduced and stolen vehicles have been stopped.”

This “elite” team of officers makes use of some pretty special intelligent enforcement equipment, the centre of which is the Black Box. Toll plaza gantries, speed-over-distance cameras and ANPRs are linked to the Black Box. Every vehicle that passes one of these is scanned and if a vehicle is flagged, the system tells the officers that it’s headed their way.

An eye-opening trip down the N3 As an aside, ten strategically located CCTV cameras and two thermal cameras, monitored by the RCC, will be connected along the N3 Route before year end.

Sunderlall explains that the SAPS reported a reduction of crime in the Mpofana area as well. He continues: “Nobody wanted to take ownership of this community. There was also no primary healthcare centre or ambulance service; people were dying in silence. We decided to intervene and a provincial ambulance now services the area. This has built great relationships with the community.”

As if to bring our journey full circle, Sunderlall explains that the N3TC is project-managing the upgrading of the weighbridge and VTS near the plaza. The first phase will be ready to operate in the first week of December and will be fully operational by April 2016.

“We want people to know that we’re not just another toll company,” Sunderlall says proudly.  

After spending time behind the scenes with the N3TC, I couldn’t agree more.

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