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Home » Tackling the transport infrastructure conundrum (Part 1)

Tackling the transport infrastructure conundrum (Part 1)

Transport infrastructure is central to the cold chain, and in this opinion piece by Chris Campbell, CEO of Consulting Engineers South Africa (CESA), he argues that consulting engineers to play the key role rather than politicians. This is part one of a two-part series.

Chris Campbell, CEO of Consulting Engineers South Africa (CESA). Image supplied by Cold Link Africa.
Chris Campbell, CEO of Consulting Engineers South Africa (CESA). Image supplied by Cold Link Africa.

The degradation we are witnessing in our transport infrastructure is a result of years of insufficient funding, corruption, and a shortage of skilled personnel. This deterioration is pervasive across all facets of the transport sector, indicating a systemic issue.

Most obvious to the layman is the state of our local and provincial roads, so riddled with potholes that they are starting to resemble our rural gravel road network. Road stormwater management systems have impacted the subsurface layers of our roads, compromising their long term integrity. Road safety signage and directional signboards in many instances are no longer visible or missing, leaving road users ignorant of speed restrictions or safety warnings.

Rail complexities affecting road networks

Additionally, our short distance passenger commuter rail system operated by PRASA that ferried hundreds of thousands of commuters annually, at an affordable cost, played a vital role until it was completely crippled by mismanagement, corruption, theft and vandalism even prior to the lockdown periods of the Covid-19 pandemic – aggravating an already dire situation.

The commuter passenger rail system has now reached a stage of dysfunctionality that the millions of commuters for whom the system was designed, are forced to use buses and minibus taxis, many of which are so dilapidated that it is unsurprising that they are a major contributor to our shocking road death toll rate.

Our railway network, with the iron ore and coal export railway lines, used to be at the cutting edge of heavy haul rail network technology. Now however, the critical long distance rail networks are mostly unreliable due to multiple shortcomings, and lack the capacity to satisfy exporters anxious to capitalise on the export gains from high global commodity prices. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a boom in road freight with haulers filling the needs of mines, agriculture and logistics companies.

The result is that with these higher volumes of heavy road traffic, road safety has been compromised and the lifespan of many roads is being shortened as they were never designed for such high volumes of heavy axle load traffic.

The impact on our economy has been colossal. Government, through National Treasury, has openly admitted that we do not have sufficient money in our budget to meet all of the competing demands that we seek to fulfil. The significant immediate impact is driven by a highly diminished tax base with unemployment at 40 %, coupled with the lost revenue that could have been derived from higher volumes of exported commodities by rail and the failure to recover the significant sums of money pillaged during the state capture period.

Infrastructure for economic growth

Bloated state employment with low levels of output would not be tolerated in the private sector and the same should be true in public sector if we are to optimise our spend on staffing costs. It is counterproductive to constrain the development of economic infrastructure at a time that we need to develop additional infrastructure for economic growth, whether logistics or tourism related.

Greater investment in functional roads, rail, air and sea, transport networks are all drivers to get our stagnant economy on a growth trajectory, which currently is projected by local and international economists’ at less than 1% of GDP (gross domestic product) in the current year; inferior to other competitive and developing economies where 3-4% is the norm.

Investment is needed in skilled people for developing future skills together, with a long term focus on ensuring that all of these transport systems are adequately operated and maintained to realise the on-going benefits of such economic infrastructure. We cannot afford to run these to failure and hope to have the funds required to build anew. Our railways are over 100 years old, so are our ports. We need to build on this legacy for the benefit of future generations rather than watch it erode into levels of dysfunctionality which will be hard to rectify. This will require the collective effort of both government and the private sector as committed partners in this process.

With respect to ensuring an enduring functional National Roads system, it does not make sense for a functional entity, such as SANRAL, to be continuously burdened with the responsibility for managing Provincial Roads. SANRAL already lacks the capacity to optimally manage their core routes, and burdening them with the need to develop additional specific capacity for the management of these Provincial roads, could be “the straw that breaks the camel’s back”.

Continued in part two…