Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Durban - Johannesburg Rapid Rail: Freight or Passengers?

When I read that Mr. Sibusiso Ndebele is in China in a state visit with Mr. President Zuma, the first thing that came into mind was that they should not forget to visit the area bordering North Korea which is devastated by floods in recent weeks. While there, they can also visit Pyongyang, a capital city of North Korea and do anything they want to do without risking being featured on the press. Some of the things that Mr. Zuma can do is to go out to movies with anyone Kim Jong-il chooses for. Mr. Sbu Ndebele can also accept any gift (say a Mercedes) from any high ranking official without any newspapers there criticizing the deal - not that they will anyway because everything is owned by the government and that is why they don't have a Media Tribunal.Yappieeee what a country!

Anyway, back to Zuma's state visit (not that I was deflecting from it) I read that one of the agreements to be signed related to transport are as follows;

· MoU on Cooperation in Transport and Related Matters,

· MoU on Cooperation in Railways and Related Matters

I just wonder if the railways and related matters relates to the Durban - Johannesburg Rapid Rail but what I have read is that the government is planning to give the job of building the line to the Chinese. Whether that is true or not its not important....wait it is...no its not.......maybe it is but I am not gonna talk about it here because I don't want to end being seen to be asking the Chinese' capabilities of building railways. What I am going to ask is whether a line between Durban and Johannesburg is ideal for rail or passengers. On its address to the media recently, the Department of Transport seems to be going for a passenger rail;

A high-speed rail link would ease congestion on the road, as such a means of transportation was proven to be the most efficient mass mover of individuals.

However, Ndebele added that a lot planning was still needed, and significant finance would be required to undertake such a project

So, what should it be? Passenger rail as suggested by S'bu (Sbusiso) or freight rail? Or should it be both passenger and freight as suggested by Lucky Montana? I believe that a country needs to choose whether they want to invest heavily in passenger trains or freight - you can not be best at both. For instance, the USA has one of the best freight rail services whereas European countries have the best passenger rail systems - neither of them have the best of both.

So Mr. Lucky Montana's idea can not be supported at all...which leaves us to passenger rail or freight rail. As already mentioned, the USA is the leader in freight rail services but this does not mean that they do not have passenger rail. In fact, they have local trains which serves their cities (though plans are there to invest in long distance trains) supported by other modes of passenger transport. So for SA a choice need to be made whether we want to invest heavily on long distance rail system of local rail system (as we already done with the Gautrain) as we can not do both and I am afraid we can't build a long distance rail system.

Why you ask? Well our cities are too far away from each other with local transport still in shambles. Besides, we already have an efficient (but with a lot of room to improve) air transport that operates between major cities. The best thing to do is to keep on improving the air industry in South Africa so that small cities can also be served by private ear lines. Another reason why we should not go for long distance trains is because we already have them, though they are slow. Like we messed up with the Gautrain, we should not solve the problem by building another high speed rail between Durban and Jo'burg or any where but fix the current situation. We can do what in Australia call Tilting, a rail technology that increases rail speed. In Australia the service between Brisbane and Cairns by the QR Tilt Train claims to be the fastest narrow-gauge train in the world, running at 160 km/h - a distance of more than 1000 kilometers between the two areas. At this speed, its speed can be compared to that of the Gautrain's and its technology can be used in urban areas, with massive savings to be incurred.

So passenger rail out and this leaves us with freight rail. If you have to believe The Road Freight Federation (SARF) that it make more sense to build a dedicated truck route then perhaps we should have a feasibility study for that as well. But I doubt the politicians will give this a thought, especially with some experts saying we should encourage more businesses to move to the coast though I believe this will not materialize. Why? Manufacturing companies in Johannesburg are near to other African countries and as soon as growth in South Africa starts to deteriorate companies are going to look for opportunities in Africa (in fact, some companies are doing that already - PnP, Shoprite and Massmart).

But then do you really need freight to move at the speed of 300 km/h? No, remember that its not about speed but reliability - yes, you can have a good speed freight train but only arrives 3 hours late. So why not increase the reliability of the current freight line? We can do this by introducing competition between Transnet and other rail private companies? I think this is the way to go. Also if tilting is possible on freight rail, we can still get goods to customers on a more acceptable times.

Which ever way the politicians and experts end up opting for, we should bare in mind that SA still have a lot of local passenger transport issues to take solve and we can not be thinking of high speed rails that will require massive government subsidies.


Paul said...

you entire article is based on the premise that highspeed pax and freight are mutually exclusive. this is no longer the case. this is the rail revolution that people are talking about. china runs freight and high speed pax at 250km/h. the pax speed is compromised but it allows them to run freight too. they are the leaders at this.

tilting train technology would require a major refurbishment and possibly welding of the tracks if it were to operate at those speeds. it would not be cheap at all. you cant just slap a tilting train on lines that have carried frieght for decades and expect it to do 160km/h. the tilting train in australia that you speak of was derailed for this very fact. its operating speed was then limited before the tracks it runs on were refurbished.

Paul said...

your article is based on the premise that high speed rail and frieght are mutually exclusive. this is no longer the case. this is the rail revolution going on in the world. china is running freight and high speed pax at 250km/h. the pax speed is compromised but it allows them to run freight too.

you can't just slap on a tilting train on tracks that have carried heavy freight for decades and expect it to do 160km/h. a serious refurbishment and i suspect welding of the tracks would have to be undertaken. this would be far from cheap solution everyone makes it out to be. the australian trains you speak of were derailed and the speed limited following a derailment. they were allowed to operate at those speeds once the track had been refurbished

Bernd Jendrissek said...

As much as I love the idea of high-speed passenger rail, I'm forced to agree with you here. Our cities are just too far apart. You'd have to have an insanely fast maglev to compete for (air) passengers on the Cape Town - Johannesburg route.

I never really considered freight vs passenger rail transport as separate variables to optimize for. And I think you're right here again - we should optimize for freight rail, not passenger rail.

Sometimes I wish somebody would build a time machine and go back and whack whoever was responsible for choosing Cape gauge for our rail system. Tilting can take you only so far.

I really hope the Gautrain gets upgraded sometime to do real high speed. 160km/h just doesn't count. In Europe, even the stop-at-all-stations trains exceed that.

Googling said...

Paul, it will cost us billions of rands more to build a new railway line to run high speed trains. Though I can't say how much tilting will cost us, the skills we will gain from doing that will be transferred to other rail line projects which we can transfer to other African countries (I don't think African countries will get rid of their current tracks/trains anytime soon)

New high speed trains are costly. Besides the cost of the tracks, there are tunnelings to be done (between Durban and Joburg, though Situma thinks otherwise) and that costs money.

Another question we should ask ourselves is if we have the passengers to travel on these high speed trains, especially between our major cities. I doubt we do.

Googling said...

Bernd, besides our cities being too far apart we just don't have enough people to make use of the high speed trains and we can't afford it.

Paul said...

we are all speculating.

an extensive feasability study should take into account all possibilities including technological(including tilting technology ), financing model etc. only once this is done can a fair can be made. i think its unwise to dismiss all of this as expensive and unessesary before the exact detail of how it can/ can not work is explored. the feasability study might yet inform those in power to do something with is totally unexpected.

personally i agree that some distances are too great to warrant only high speed passenger rail. jhb-cpt

what i dont agree with is that high speed pax and freight are mutually exclusive. rail technology has moved really quickly in the recent past. i think durban-joburg is viable and could enable our economy in ways we cant fully fathom yet.

but this is my personal hunch
and i think we can all benefit from seeing the results of feasabilty study to base this debate. I read the report on the Tshwane-Mogale link and the numbers were an eye opener.

what we all agree on is that something needs to be done to save our rail infrastructure and also to make freight transport between durban and joburg quicker and more efficient .its not fair to dismiss all of this without basing it on creible numbers

Googling said...

Paul, thanks. I agree with you. However, we should make sure that the feasibility studies are not cooked like with the Gautrain.

I have blogged about this here;