Let’s get talking
As the debate of road versus rail continues, Anton Niemann, general manager sales: commercial lubricants at Shell, suggests that South Africa needs a “Transport Codesa” to open up constructive dialogue and thereby enable the most efficient operational combination of the country’s road and rail systems.
“We should openly discuss the issues that affect our sector and share ideas about how it can evolve and develop. Different role players – whether they represent road or rail – should engage with each other,” he says.
Andrew Marsay, independent transport economist, adds: “Much of the investment currently being made in the South African rail sector is aimed at improving the sector’s ability to carry container freight. However, rail will struggle to win a profitable share of the container market from the road-freight sector and it could profit by focusing on bulk freight instead.”
Marsay says road and rail transport each have certain advantages that cannot be duplicated by the other.
“Companies make use of road freight because it means they do not have to place their goods in someone else’s hands. It is also more flexible and allows them to change their minds quickly.”
On the other hand, rail transport is more energy efficient than road transport, has a smaller environmental impact and can be more efficient than roads for the bulk-freight transport of goods like coal and iron-ore. “If rail investment focused more on dry and liquid bulks, rail could increase its volumes rapidly and at a much lower cost.”
South Africa’s geographical size makes it more difficult to transport containers more efficiently via rail than road. Marsay advocates the creation of specialised freight roads to be used by trucks only.
Niemann says it is important that the transport sector creates platforms to discuss ideas like those put forward by Marsay and other transport researchers.
“The transport sector plays a crucial role in the wider South African economy. Ensuring that it operates as efficiently as possible should be a national priority, as it affects the cost of doing business for almost all other sectors.”
Marsay says transport companies often take short-term measures to try to save costs in order to stay afloat during difficult periods. “In a slow economic growth environment it is difficult to think about optimal solutions, but it is those businesses that do this that will ultimately survive.”