The cabinet is expected to give the nod later this year to the multibillion-rand high-speed rail network proposed as part of the National Transport Master Plan (Natmap), which is intended to cut congestion on the country’s roads and the cost of public transport.
A transport industry fundi said yesterday that the Natmap, which has the potential to drive up construction activity and job creation like the World Cup did, suggested a sequenced delivery process for the rail sector over a 20-year period.
The network will consist of high-speed rail projects from Johannesburg to Durban (566km); Johannesburg to Cape Town (1 264km); Johannesburg to Musina (520km) and a rail corridor between Tshwane and Moloto in Mpumalanga.
Mawethu Vilana, the deputy director-general for transport logistics and corridor development in the Department of Transport, said a feasibility study on the network was yet to be done. This would determine the project costs, funding options available and whether it was something that South Africa could afford.
Last year, reports estimated that the high-speed rail link between Durban and Johannesburg could cost $30 billion (R213bn). These reports also said the government was in talks with China Railway Group about building it.
Using the $30bn as a benchmark, if all the other links were built, the entire project could cost close to R1 trillion, judging by the distances alone.
Tony Twine, a senior economist at Econometrix, said costs would vary on each route depending on the engineering required. Twine said to drive around between cities as was the case now was not ideal for a modern traveller or commuter.
He said: “It makes a lot of these places reachable more conveniently and potentially cheaper than air travel. London to Germany’s Polish border is 1 200km, people need to see that these are big spaces and the faster you can get across them, the better.”
John Thompson, the chief executive of the Railroad Association of SA, said this was a good plan for the country.
“Pretoria to Moloto makes a lot of sense because it takes a lot of the buses off the roads and reduces accidents,” said Thompson. “But are you going to be able to fill the trains between Johannesburg and Cape Town?”
Thompson added that there were a lot of questions that remained unanswered, which he hoped the business plan for the network would clarify.
Romano Del Mistro of UCT’s department of civil engineering said: “There are also broader benefits of introducing high-speed rail, such as increasing economic opportunities through better access between major centres and the development of a rail stock component manufacturing industry.”
Of the four projects, the Durban to Johannesburg link would probably be the most viable in that it could compete with air travel. “International high-speed rail experience is that high-speed rail can compete economically on routes shorter than 1 000km.”
Freddie Mitchell, an economist from Efficient Group, said viability studies would have to be considered carefully because “looking at the tax base, it is difficult to see where the money will come from”.
Mitchell also questioned if there would be enough passengers to repay the investment.
Vilana said as part of the Natmap, the Passenger Rail Agency of SA had also identified the need for the recapitalisation of its fleet over the next 18 years.
Vilana said: “These projects and Transnet rail upgrades will be a major boost to socioeconomic development of our country, as well as a catalyst for job creation and the development of the railway industry in the country.
“The challenge we are facing is that most of our commuter rail system has reached the end of its lifespan.
“We believe that an ambitious programme of introducing new rail rolling stock and technology in our system is an absolute necessity and will protect our historical investment in the sector. There are major socioeconomic spin-offs from a comprehensive rail investment programme.
“A sustained programme over 20 years will create certainty and enable input manufacturers to retool factories and therefore create sustained local industrial activities.” - Slindile Khanyile