South Africa

75% of Transnet’s railways inoperable

Stolen train tracks

Transnet is plagued by criminal syndicates, resulting in 1,600km of cables being stolen from the utility’s railways in the last financial year – incapacitating most of its infrastructure.

Professor of industrial engineering at Stellenbosch University Jan Havenga told 702 that South Africa’s rail infrastructure is “going backwards at a horrendous pace”. 

An example of this deterioration is the Durban-Johannesburg rail corridor, designed to transport 70 trains daily but at some points can only transport less than 10 trains per day. 

This has resulted in the amount of freight transported by rail in South Africa decreasing to levels last seen during World War II. 

A more serious issue, according to Havenga, is that when railways stand idle, making them a lot easier to vandalise and steal cables from. 

Chief commercial officer at Transnet Freight Rail Bonginkosi Mabaso told Newzroom Afrika that in the last financial year, the utility had over 1,600km of cable stolen from its railways. 

This is a critical issue for Transnet as it is immensely costly to replace and repair thousands of kilometres of cables annually. 

Mabaso said that initiatives from Transnet and collaboration with the private sector had reduced the amount of cable stolen so far in 2023 versus last year. 

However, in the 24 hours from 6 am on 3 July to 6 am on 4 July, nearly 3.3km of cables were stolen.

Jan Havenga, professor of industrial engineering at Stellenbosch University

The best solution to prevent cable theft is for trains to run consistently on the corridors as they provide an obstacle to thieves and vandals. 

This must be complemented by security on the ground and engagement with communities that live alongside railways. 

Transnet is also struggling with a lack of spare parts to conduct maintenance on its locomotive, with the number of serviceable locomotives down from 2,200 in 2019 to 1,500 in 2022. 

Mabaso lamented the systemic underinvestment in railway infrastructure in South Africa and called on the private sector to partner with Transnet to invest in specific rail corridors. 

Transnet has opened a bidding process for third-party access to its Durban-Johannesburg container corridor, which has garnered significant interest from private companies. 

The utility has also appointed private security firms to protect its railway infrastructure. 


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