Rural rail network needed

 The problem here is that apart from the main lines linking the metros with Gauteng, the rail infrastructure simply does not exist

One of the major challenges that has faced the Eastern Cape from inception in 1994 – and the geographic area that is now the Eastern Cape even before then – has been the absence of a sophisticated and efficient transport logistics network.

Announcements by the South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral) last week are therefore a critically important part of addressing the challenges the province faces.

The national roads agency announced timeframes for the completion of the upgrading of the N2 between Fish River and Grahamstown, and finalisation of construction work on the R72 coastal road linking Port Elizabeth and East London.

The coastal road is of particular importance from a tourism perspective, as it will provide tourists travelling from Port Elizabeth with easier and more comfortable access to areas along the Sunshine Coast, to East London and even further east.

It is also important that Sanral is addressing issues connected to the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the Wild Coast Highway, while the finalising of the proposed Butterworth and Dutywa bypasses will also cut travelling time to the eastern part of the province from Port Elizabeth, specifically to the Wild Coast.

Total investment for the N2 and R72 will involve more than R2-billion.

Without detracting in any manner from the importance of these announcements, Sanral will be the first to acknowledge that it will be faced with an ongoing repair and maintenance challenge unless Transnet’s laudable Road-to-Rail Strategy can be extended to the Eastern Cape because of the number of heavy vehicles using both roads.

The problem here is that apart from the main lines linking the metros with Gauteng, the rail infrastructure simply does not exist. Also at this stage, Transnet Freight Rail’s major focus is on the upgrading and widening of the rail link between Hotazel in the Northern Cape and the Port of Ngqura/Coega IDZ for the transportation of manganese.

One initiative aimed at addressing the transport infrastructure challenge was announced by Economic Development, Environmental Affairs and Tourism MEC Sakhumzi Somyo towards the end of last year. He told the Bhisho legislature the East London Industrial Development Zone (ELIDZ) had completed a feasibility study into an investment in a feeder vessel “that would operate between East London and the Port of Ngqura to move freight from the transhipment port to the East London feeder port”.

He said that in addition to allowing more frequency in the movement of freight between the two ports, it would “reduce pressure on the Eastern Cape roads from trucks”.

While that is an important initiative, it will not address all the challenges and specifically those associated with the absence of transport infrastructure between the former Transkei and East London, specifically for the transportation of agricultural produce.

While the establishment of a rail link between Nelson Mandela Bay and Buffalo City is important, perhaps more so is the creation of a rail network linking East London with the former Transkei.

This will provide a significant boost as far as the development of the agro-processing sector in the East London IDZ is concerned, creating thousands of jobs as a result of the backward linkages with agriculture in one of the very poorest areas of the province.

There is also the potential for the supply of feedstock for biofuels plants, of which five are currently planned for the Eastern Cape, three of them at Coega.

The announcement of a multi-user agro-processing facility in the Coega IDZ last week is an indication of both the potential of agro-processing for the Eastern Cape, and the interest of both domestic and foreign investors in this sector.

Sanral’s investment must be applauded. What is required now is intensive lobbying of Transnet Freight Rail with regard to the provision of rail infrastructure and, at the same time, for the speedy concessioning of identified branch lines that will also be of significant use in terms of transport logistics and linking the hinterland with the major economic hubs.

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