Rail going nowhere

August 30, 2012

Efforts to persuade Transnet Freight Rail to expand their service to the forestry industry have not yielded solutions, but the door is not closed and hopes are high that the state-owned rail operator will still come to the party.

 Rail going nowhere, KwaZulu-Natal
Disused branch line in KwaZulu-Natal, going nowhere. (Photo: Bruce Goatley, NCT Forestry). 
Victor Malinga Timber train headed for the coast
 Victor Malinga is Mondi's Transport Forester responsible for the transport of timber from infield to the Kemp rail siding at Piet Retief, and the loading of around 50 rail trucks every day. Victor started working for Mondi as a gardener 29 years ago, moved on to re-fuelling trucks, and eventually completed national diplomas in transport and logistics management. He's been managing the logistics operation at Piet Retief for the past 10 years. This is the picture we want to see ... a big timber train heading for the coast. Each rail truck is the equivalent of one standard timber road truck.
Weighbridge at Kemp Siding Bells loading a rail truck
The busy weighbridge at Kemp Siding. Two Bells load a rail truck, while the next truck waits its turn behind.


The Forestry South Africa Transport Committee reports that the concessioning process begun in 2010 has ground to a halt, but that a planned visit by Transnet CEO Brian Molefe to find out more about branch lines and sidings important to the industry may yet provide the key to unlock this thorny issue.

The stakes are high as rising road transport costs are impacting negatively on the competitiveness of the industry. Since this trend is likely to continue, there is only one viable solution: move less timber by road and more by rail, which should be significantly cheaper and more efficient.

A survey into the haulage of timber by road and rail over a five-year period, conducted by FSA in 2010, revealed that total tonnage railed decreased by 1.4 million tons a year (or 40%) to 2.1 million tons. The major reasons given for the shift from road to rail were uncompetitive tariffs and poor service levels.

Another survey conducted in 2011 found that the tonnage the industry could potentially put back onto rail, should the level of service and tariff structure improve, was three million tons of timber a year. This represents a 134% increase over what is currently railed. Apart from the benefits to the timber growers of reducing their transport costs, this would result in major benefits to the country as a whole as it would remove 80 000 heavy truck trips from our roads every year.

The branch line concessioning initiative gained momentum in 2010 when TFR declared its intention to concession over 7 000 kms of branch lines throughout the country. In response, the FSA Transport Committee submitted an 'Expression of Interest' to run a network of branch lines around Pietermaritzburg, and started negotiating with possible international partners and conducting a feasibility study.

However, TFR's proposed business model, which requires the concessionaire to operate only the branch line and hand over the freight to TFR on the main line, was flawed as it would not be viable from a business point of view. The Department of Public

Enterprises agreed with this view and requested TFR to come up with a more sustainable model.

Meanwhile, the FSA Transport Committee, chaired by Roger Godsmark, is preparing to host Brian Molefe of Transnet to show him the ropes, and hopefully his intervention can get the recommissioning of branch lines back on track.

Another positive development, reported by FSA in its annual report, is that DAFF has commissioned a study to assess the current forestry transport infrastructure, to identify the industry's needs and make recommendations for inclusion in the National Transport Master Plan 2050.

The 'wood owl' keeps timber moving

While the closure of some branch lines around the country has put cost pressures on surrounding timber growers forced to rely on road transport to get their product to market, the main 'coal' line between Mpumalanga and Richards Bay continues to provide a lifeline to others.

Mondi's BU central plantations produce around 1.25 million tons of timber a year, most of which is transported by rail to its mills in Richards Bay via sidings at Iswepe, Piet Retief (Kemp siding), Paulpietersburg, Vryheid East and Mqwabe.

Mondi has been allocated around 100 rail carriages a day by TFR at these sidings, and has a massive task to ensure they are loaded and ready to hook up to the 'wood owl' train heading for the coast each day. Each rail truck carries around 36.5 tons of timber.

This operation comes with considerable challenges, and requires a daily planning schedule that resembles the 'Matrix'. It also demands a high level of co-operation between the key players in the logistics chain, namely Mondi's Llogistics team, BU Central team, its harvesting, transport and loading contractors, the offloading teams at their mills, and TFR.

One of the key challenges, according to Mondi's BU Central Manager, Denzil Venské, is the fact that the number of rail carriages supplied to the different sidings varies from day to day. His team, in conjunction with the forests logistics team, has developed a planning system based on what he terms a 'strike rate' or the number of carriages available at each siding. This involves a fair amount of forecasting, based on trends, but can only be verified day-to-day. Thus, a highly flexible cross functional team is required to fill all the available trucks on all the sidings on any given day.

The average lead distance from field to siding averages around 25 kms. The exceptions are the Tygerskloof plantations, which are around 75 kms to the rail siding. Mondi has secured local markets for the Tygerskloof timber because of the high cost of transport by road and rail to Richards Bay.

SA Forestry magazine visited the Kemp rail siding at Piet Retief, which must be one of the busiest timber sidings in the country. Mondi's harvesting and logistics team in charge of supplying timber to this siding is led by Victor Malinga and Rudi du Randt. Between them, they must ensure that there is sufficient timber at the siding day and night to fill all the rail carriages allocated, averaging out at 53 carriages a day.

Contractors Welverdiend Forestry, Ziyawa Forestry and Hlanganani Forestry play an equally crucial role in this operation.

Kemp is a hive of activity, with a constant stream of timber trucks waiting their turn at the weighbridge. The round-the-clock loading operation on the depot is done by Hlanganani Forestry with a combination of Bells and excavator-based loaders.

A new initiative to harvest longer log lengths of 5.8 metres is aimed at speeding up log handling and better utilisation of space in the rail trucks.

"This operation is a full-on partnership between ourselves, our contractors, our markets and TFR," commented Denzil. "We hold a lot of stock at the sidings to ensure that we fill all allocated trucks every single day, because we can't afford to miss the train."

Publlished in June 2012

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