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Rail in decline – a precursor to road deterioration?

A Bee in My Bonnet column. By: Robin Hayes – Editor at CBN.

There is always a consequence.

NOT having embarked on a long road trip since leaving Johannesburg for good, seven years ago, I was looking forward to the experience when the opportunity arose to pay the old haunts a visit.

The sights are just as beautiful as I remember especially the Hex River Valley but what I found astonishing was the number of trucks on the road which I’m convinced outnumbered other traffic by at least 50:1.

I can’t complain at the level of skill and politeness of the drivers of these behemoths although I’m sure when several 50 tonners get into convoy, slipstreaming the guy in front – probably to save fuel – means that other motorists have to plan very carefully to safely overtake three or four trucks at once. More timid drivers just don’t take the risk and this causes a tailback and frustration and even more risk as faster drivers now have to choose their spot carefully to overtake not just three juggernauts but perhaps several passenger cars or bakkies too.

Besides road safety, another issue caused by the increase in heavy goods traffic is the condition of the roads. Not good, probably best described as ‘adequate’. Negotiating rough and corrugated pavements got me to thinking why the heavy goods vehicle market had grown so much when we have a railway system that statistics show should be much more efficient and cost competitive than road transport.

We seem to have the worst of both worlds – a dysfunctional rail system plagued by theft, corruption and incompetence and a road freight industry which admittedly has filled the gap, but at what cost to the fiscus?

I’m sure there is rational explanation (!) why there are so many manganese ore carriers transporting this important export from the Northern Cape to Port Elizabeth on the roads, but having driven on the R389 recently and dodged the potholes, its unfathomable why this important mineral has to be transported by road.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the rail system isn’t competitive and hasn’t been so for many years but this lack of investment and desire for competitiveness is incomprehensible for a growing economy. I’m sure our road engineers will quote all the statistics and maintenance projections of the damage these 30 – 50 tonners do to the road surface and the frequency our roads need to be repaired – all at great cost, safety considerations and inconvenience to the taxpayer.

What level of contribution does the road freight industry make to the maintenance of our roads? Can a finger be pointed at this industry to determine that they are paying their fair share for maintaining the road infrastructure? A rhetorical question.

Perusing various government generated reports on the topic of freight movement, indicate that they are not and at least one comments that there is reluctance on the part of the RFA (Road Freight Association) to part with industry statistics.

One report consulted showed that a comparison between the damage caused to road surfaces by a passenger car axel of 850 kg as opposed to a truck axel of 4 000 kg, was 0,002 times or that a truck axel does nearly 500 times more structural damage than a car axel does. Maximum permitted truck axel loads in this country can be double that – 8 000 kg!

The RFA proclaims (on its website) that one of the fundamentals of its establishment in 1975 was the upkeep of road infrastructure but apart from a mention in the contents opening paragraph, this activity is absent from the Association’s activities or goals.

Readers interested in the switch of freight from road to rail could do no better than read the full report “Freight shift from road to rail”

By way of closing, can anyone explain why it is apparently not necessary for trucks and trailers to have mud guards? It is a very dangerous omission, especially in heavy rain when the spray generated by an unguarded wheel obliterates other driver’s vision and I have suffered two broken windscreens by rocks and stones thrown up by the unguarded wheels of a passing truck.


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