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A shift to rail

With talk of a 1 500-km Zimbabwean rail project and the Trans-Kalahari Railway Line, MARISKA MORRIS asks whether transport of bulk goods in southern Africa will move from road to rail.

Botswana has made railway development a priority. While discussions around developing the Trans-Kalahari Railway Line (TKRL) have been taking place for some time, the country has started taking more concrete steps. Botswana Railways signed a memorandum of understand (MoU) with the Namibian national railway, TransNamib, in January and issued tenders for wagons and locomotives in February.

The TKRL aims to serve two purposes: it will link Botswana with Namibian ports on the Atlantic coast with a railway that will run from Mmamabula to Walvis Bay, as well as from Mmamabula to Lephalale, Limpopo, through a new proposed route to transport coal.

The development of the TKRL will be a joint venture by Namibia and Botswana and will cost an estimated US$ 9,5 billion (R137 billion). It is set to complement the existing Trans-Kalahari Corridor (TKC), which links Botswana to the port of Walvis Bay via a 1 900-km route that runs through Windhoek, Namibia, Gaborone, Botswana, and Johannesburg.

The three countries established this route to work towards deeper regional integration. The TKC reportedly cuts out 400 km from the traditional trade routes through southern Namibia to South Africa.

Part of the MoU includes introducing a coal terminal and associated loading facilities at the Namibia-Botswana corridor, which will assist other landlocked Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries like Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

An additional direct route to South Africa is also planned. Logistics Update Africa quotes CEO of Botswana Railways Leonard Makwinhja: “With the ongoing developments of coal mining in the country, the project is becoming more critical.”

The route would need around 60 locomotives and 2 000 wagons to move the coal to Lephalale. In February, Botswana Railways issued a tender for the purchase or leasing of coal wagons and locomotives with bids closing mid-March. This is only one of a number of programmes planned by Transnet and Botswana Railways to unlock the estimated 212-billion tonnes of coal reserves in Botswana.

The direct route will reportedly transport 80-million tonnes of coal to South Africa per annum for domestic use or export. This was agreed in a MoU signed at the Mining Indaba in Cape Town in February.

Some of the programmes are already under way, like the upgrade of the existing railway line from Lephalale to Pyramid South in Pretoria, which will work to unlock both the Waterberg and Botswana coal reserves.

Plans are also in place to upgrade the electrical infrastructure on the coal heavy-haul system and to build a second tunnel at Overvaal in Mpumalanga.

African News Agency (ANA) quotes the chairperson of Botswana Railways, Adolph Hirschfeld: “The railway link from Botswana to South Africa is one of the strategic initiatives that will transform the economy of the SADC region.”

Transnet chairperson Popo Molefe in turn said, as quoted by ANA: “We will ensure that the South African railway system is capacitated to support the unlocking of both the Waterberg and Botswana coal reserves.”

While these planned routes might assist the region with making coal available, this move towards rail does challenge the road transport industry. If the planned 1 500-km Zimbabwean rail project materialises, it could be an even bigger challenge for road-transport operators.

Zimbabwe has an ambitious goal of becoming the transport and logistics hub for the SADC region with the help of an extensive rail network. In 2016, a MoU was signed with Mozambique and Botswana to build a railway at an estimated cost of US$ 600 million (R8,5 billion), which will link Francistown in Botswana with Bulawayo in Zimbabwe and the port of Techobanine in Mozambique.

Each country is expected to contribute US$ 200 million (R2,8 billion) to the project. When complete, it is expected to move up to 12-million tonnes of goods per year through the three countries. In addition, the project aims to revive some of the Zimbabwean public-transport system by also transporting people.

Both the Zimbabwean rail project and TKRL form part of a bigger vision by Southern African Railways Association (SARA) of restoring railways in the region, and winning back some of the cross-border transport opportunities now mostly dominated by the heavy commercial vehicle sector.

Bongani Nkosi, in an article for The Star, quotes SARA chairperson Stephenson Ngubane, who says: “In southern Africa, we’re looking at rail network expansion so that we reach more areas and that the bulk traffic currently on road comes back to rail.”

Although Ngubane notes that the aim is not to cripple the road-freight industry, this shift will undoubtedly have a big impact, particularly on smaller transport operators.

Part of the motivation is to preserve the roads in the region. Nkosi quotes Ngubane: “We believe that the use of more rail will preserve our roads. Motorists suffer because these trucks create big potholes. Also, roads are expensive to maintain and trucks have more accidents.”

According to SARA executive director Babe Botana, rail has lost traffic over the years because of a lack of maintenance of infrastructure. Nkosi quotes him as saying: “We’ve realised that over the years there’s been lack of maintenance of the rail infrastructure. There’s been a lot of vandalism, particularly of the signalling and communication infrastructure. We’re now looking at how best to deal with that issue.”

In addition to the Zimbabwean railway project and TKRL, there is also a planned 146-km route between Lothair, Mpumalanga, and Swaziland, with even more to come. Nkosi quotes Zeph Ndlovu, GM at Transnet Freight Rail: “When it comes to railway, we believe we should expand our spread beyond the SADC region – and go right across the African continent.”

I’m a bookaholic born and bred with too many novels on my already over-flowing bookshelves. When I’m not reading Lauren Beukes or binge watching New Girl, I’m writing … about everything. My interests and passions change almost daily as I learn about new things and causes. If I find it interesting, I will write about it. I don’t understand why anyone would spend money on a sports car when they can buy books. I’m more a dog person than a cat person, although I would love to own a bunny one day. I can never seem to tame my very curly hair. I will never say no to a movie date and I prefer my moijto shaken not stirred.

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