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Overview of the Rail Freight System of Mpumalanga

Transnet Freight Rail's 2, 233 kilometre route system in Mpumalanga is a crucial element of the South African transportation system and is a significant factor in the movement of freight within and through the Province to countrywide domestic destinations and beyond South African borders. The Mpumalanga rail system generates the greatest volume of traffic of any province in South Africa and for this reason it is of the greatest strategic and economic value.

Over 100-million tons of general freight cargo was transported by rail across Mpumalanga on four important arterial routes, one heavy-haul line and seven branch lines during the 2007-2008 review period. Of this total, some 25-million tons consisted of transit traffic, moving from one Province through to another Province. The Balfour North to Volksrust section of the Gauteng to Durban mainline (Natcor) was the principal bridge route, carrying nearly 12 million tons of long-haul traffic but only forwarding and receiving about 7.4 million tons of provincial traffic, of which over 95% was coal. Other traffic carried included chrome and ferrochrome ores, iron ore, as well as other commodities including containers and automotive products. About 64-million tons of traffic was generated in the Province, and this included coal, chrome and ferrochrome, forestry products, chemicals and liquid fuels and various grains. Over 9-million tons was received into the Province, consisting mainly of manganese ore, lime products and chemicals for industry beneficiation.

Traffic volumes and transport routes utilised vary from year to year for both road and rail, depending on short and long-term demand in the domestic and international market. Coal traffic to power stations is fairly constant but exports of various minerals varies with international demand. Agricultural traffic is dependent on weather conditions and crop harvests. In one year maize may be exported, while the following year it will be imported. This places demands on the transport system in order to have capacity for traffic in good years, while at other times there may be a significant surplus capacity.

In the case of traffic transiting Mpumalanga, export chrome traffic generated in the North West Province and routed through Mpumalanga to Richards Bay grew from about 434 000 tons in 2003-4 to 746 135 tons in 2007-08. Ferrochrome traffic from the North West dropped from over 811 000 tons to 556 985 tons, while Granite traffic from the North West dropped from 324 568 tons to 240 122 tons during the present review period. This was not necessarily due to an increased road share in the market but to international demands, etc. On the other hand, TFR improved their services on coal delivery to the Majuba Power Station at Palmford (near Volksrust), and the volume grew from about 3.4 million tons in 2003-04 to over 7.3 million tons in 2007-08. However, over 10 million tons was still on road and it is for this reason that ESKOM are planning to construct a high capacity heavy-haul line from near Ermelo to the power station. Unfortunately, export coal traffic on the Richards Bay route fell from over 70 million tons to just 61 million in the present review period, due mainly to TFR capacity constraints. In comparison, Rock Phosphate traffic from Phalaborwa increased from 1.7 million to nearly 1.9 million because of improved over-the-road performance and Magnetite traffic increased from just 112 000 tons to over 1.9-m tons

In respect of generated and received provincial traffic, the busiest general TFR freight section is the so-called Maputo Corridor, running from Pretoria to Witbank, Nelspruit and Maputo, as well as its associated branch and feeder lines which carry about 19% of total Mpumalanga rail traffic. This is small when compared to the Richards Bay heavy-haul coal line where over 68 million tons (49% of total) are generated. In addition, the important "secondary" mainline from Springs to Ermelo serves the large SASOL 2 and 3 Plants at Trichardt, moving some 1.2 million tons of cargo. Important branch line traffic is generated from five lines. This includes chrome from the Steelpoort branch, iron ore from the Roossenekal branch and forestry traffic from the Graskop, Barberton and Lothair branches. These lines generate some 610 000 tons of forestry traffic, all which is routed over various main line sections. There has, unfortunately, been a significant drop in forestry traffic which stood at over 1.2 million tons in 2003-4 because of major plantation fires and tariff increases by Transnet Freight Rail, pushing significant volumes to road transport.

The accompanying tables under statistics provide information on each of the rail lines in the province and it is important to consider the fact that traffic is often routed over several sections so the figures cannot be taken in total. For example, traffic originating on the Steelpoort branch may be routed over the Maputo Corridor to either Mozambique or other provinces. Chrome ore destined for export at Richards Bay will be routed over the branch itself, then over a section of the Maputo Corridor from Belfast to Wonderfontein or Ogies, and then over the Coal Line. This traffic will be reflected in each of three tables but is credited to the originating line. When traffic has been credited to one line it appears in normal type, but on subsequent sections it appears in italics.

Transnet Freight Rail has changed its commodity description details recently and this has, in some cases, made comparisons with earlier statistics difficult. For example, Phosphate Rock originating in Phalaborwa and routed to Richards Bay is now identified under the heading "Mining of Fertiliser and Fertiliser Minerals," and not as Rock Phosphate. This makes an accurate identification of the actual commodity very difficult. Sulphuric Acid and Phosphoric Acid now fall under the category "Industrial Chemicals."

It can be seen, therefore that rail is a significant provider of transportation capacity; however, its market share of general freight traffic has declined in recent years. Some arterial railway lines are not currently operating and this includes the important agricultural Bethal - Amersfoort - Volksrust line, which in the past served the agricultural community and a number of large grain silos. The grain traffic generated in this area is now all on road. It is necessary for the Province to monitor this situation. By virtue of the provincial requirement in terms of the NLTTA to provide an integrated modal transport and freight transport plan, it will be necessary for the province to monitor the market share of freight cargo carried by the different modes of freight transport. The Mpumalanga Freight Transport Databank is intended to facilitate this process.

Trends in other countries must be considered. This includes the out-sourcing or concessioning of branch and light traffic density railway lines to the private sector or local communities. This has been successfully implemented in a number of countries and particularly in the United States where the railway systems are privately owned but were largely controlled by the Interstate Commerce Commission, a state undertaking. After rail transport was deregulated in the 1970's the larger railroads handed over control and operations of many lines to small operators and the result has been the creation of over 400 new companies who have been more responsive to customer needs. In addition, the local municipalities and States have underwritten some infrastructure costs to enable the new operators to provide the required service at competitive rates. This has been done since the cost of moving rail traffic to road would have created negative externalities which would have exceeded the cost of retaining rail operations. Such endeavours would make sense in Mpumalanga and several lines are likely candidates. These include the Bethal - Volksrust line, and the Barberton, Graskop, Lothair and Vrede branches. In respect of main line or high density operations, the introduction of intermodal systems has generated much traffic formerly on road. Containerised traffic is but one example of this and aggressive marketing strategies coupled with good services has brought more traffic to rail.

In South Africa in general and Mpumalanga in particular, the substantial reduction in general freight traffic, has also resulted in fewer industrial area's shunting activities. This is apparent in Witbank, Middelburg and Nelspruit. The Province should request that the railways administration should investigate the status of all private sidings in the province and not encourage companies to close these facilities until a full appraisal is made about their future value.

Several years ago, national government at Cabinet level approved a general policy to encourage greater use of rail transport. The recently announced R15 billion recapitalisation programme is the first major state intervention to address declining rail cargoes. For Mpumalanga to ensure maximum benefit from this railway investment programme, joint planning will be necessary.

An increase in rail market share assumes that the substantial investment planned for rail infrastructure, rolling stock and locos will facilitate a significant improvement in rail service delivery. It must be appreciated that as the railways administration investment programme has barely commenced, there will be some delay before an overall improvement in service delivery is evident. In this respect the administration should follow a targeted marketing approach, concentrating initially on specific commodities or areas. The province needs to ensure that the targeted areas for improved performance are in line with provincial developmental plans.

Current Status And Future Of Rail Freight In Mpumalanga

The entire matter of rail and road competition must be dealt with as a matter of urgency. In addition, the focus by railway management on train-load traffic at the expense of wagon-load traffic, particularly on branch lines, must be re-evaluated. Recent rail tariff increases are a matter for concern and Transnet should deal with these issues at the highest government level. It may become necessary for government to underwrite losses incurred by the railway operator to avoid transferring more traffic to road. A holistic view of total transport costs, including "externality costs" must be initiated as soon as possible to finally appreciate the total costs of each mode to the government and community at large.