On 26 March 2020, South Africa along with the rest of the world experienced an unexpected apocalypse which came in the form of Covid-19, a virus that claimed the lives hundreds of thousands of people and left the economy in a state of disrepair. While many tried to adjust to what was called ‘the new normal’ whereby employees worked from home, thieves saw the empty streets and rail stations as an opportunity to destroy and pillage. Electric cables, tracks and railings were yanked and stolen from unguarded stations which set the economy back, as millions of rands worth of rail infrastructure was ruined.
The White Paper on the National Rail Policy is aimed at invigorating South Africa’s rail landscape while revitalising what was lost during the lockdown. The Railway Safety Regulator (RSR) will be at the forefront of providing the Department of Transport and the Economic Regulator with the necessary support in the digital revolution journey that the sector is embarking on.
Revitalisation of the rail networks is a priority
As the Transport Minister, Fikile Mbalula, elucidated at the launch of the policy, the White Paper will be a major step towards rehabilitating South Africa’s ailing rail network and it represents a new era and a decisive break with the past, which saw the railways being used as an instrument to segregate society.
To add to the Minister’s call for action in restoring our rail infrastructure, the RSR CEO, Tshepo Kgare, emphasised, “Revitalisation of the rail networks is a priority. There is total devastation of the networks, there is nothing left to steal anymore. It is imperative that we find ways of halting the decline and restore the integrity of rail.”
One of the key components of reforming the network will be the introduction of long distance, highspeed trains between Durban and Johannesburg, “a profitable route that will allow rail to compete with commercial airlines,” said Ngwako Makaepea, Deputy Director-General of the DoT.
Invitation for the private sector to invest in rail will liberate the network
Over and above the White Paper, Transnet is in the process of providing third party access to its freight rail network. With Transnet’s third party open access rolling out, the RSR is looking to cut down the amount of time it takes to issue permits from the time of application, from 90 days to 30, but this will depend on the number of operators who are new current operators.
It is not unusual for multiple users to share rail networks while regulated by a public regulator that provides oversight. The RSR currently regulates various railway operators including major state-owned enterprises such as Transnet, who also have customers who run on limited areas of the network; typically within the sidings up to the exchange yards.
According to Kgare, the Regulator can oversee multiple operators as well as the customers of Transnet, who will also be issued with safety permits.
“In other words, the current regulatory regime of the RSR can provide adequate regulatory capability in the case of open access to the rail network,” said Kgare
Both the third party access and the White Paper on the National Rail Policy, will play a significant role in addressing the infrastructure challenges and the backlog in investment and operational inefficiencies in the rail industry.
The White Paper on the National Rail Policy is not only pivotal in the development of South Africa’s economy, but it will also create an efficient transport system that will parallel no other on the continent. The invitation for the private sector to invest in rail will liberate the network while setting us on a path to a more inclusive economic growth.