In total, 3,636 km of railway track has deteriorated into an unusable condition since the advent of democracy in 1994.
This was revealed by Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan in a written reply to a parliamentary question this week.
The length of the unusable railway track only includes figures from Transnet and not the potentially massive amounts operated by the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa.
Gordhan said that Transnet Freight Rail has been plagued by theft, vandalism, and a general lack of efficiency over the past years.
The minister said actions are being taken to enhance the effectiveness of the freight rail system to ensure the efficient movement of goods to and from the country’s ports.
Transnet Freight Rail is the largest portion of the company’s operations and performed dismally in the past financial year.
The company posted a loss of R1.6 billion for the six months through September, compared with a profit of R159 million a year earlier, Transnet said in a statement following the release of its interim results in December.
The company blamed collisions, community unrest on its coal railway lines, and equipment challenges for lower volumes of ore and coal delivered.
Rail and petroleum volumes were down 7%, while container volumes declined nearly 2%. Net operating expenses jumped 10% to R25.3 billion on higher salaries, electricity tariff increases, pipeline theft, vandalism incidents and material costs.
Professor of industrial engineering at Stellenbosch University Jan Havenga estimated last year that 75% of South Africa’s railways are unusable.
This has resulted in the amount of freight transported by rail in South Africa decreasing to levels last seen during World War II.
For example, the Durban-Johannesburg rail corridor is designed to transport 70 trains daily but, at some points, can only transport less than ten trains per day.
A more serious issue, according to Havenga, is that when railways stand idle, it is a lot easier to vandalise and steal cables from them.
Chief commercial officer at Transnet Freight Rail Bonginkosi Mabaso said that in the last financial year alone, 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 in 2023 versus 2022.