A glimmer of belief that rail challenges are fixable

NCT Forestry built a special trans-shipment depot near Vryheid a few years ago to transfer timber bound for their Richards Bay mill from long haul trucks onto rail. But the faltering freight rail service is undermining this initiative, and more and more of this timber is staying on the road..

There is a spark of belief among forestry stakeholders that solutions to the deepening logistics challenges faced by the sector are beginning to click into place …

Never mind the energy crisis – South Africa is facing a ‘logistics crisis’ as poor levels of service and maintenance in key freight rail corridors and at ports that provide gateways to international markets are putting the brakes on an already struggling economy. The forestry sector is directly impacted as it depends heavily on rail and the ports of Richards Bay and Durban to move timber from the hinterland to the mills where it is processed before being exported as chips or pulp.

Deteriorating service on the coal line from the Mpumalanga highveld to Richards Bay has seen the volume of timber moved on this line halve since 2005 from 3.5 million tons a year to a little over one million tons. The rest of that timber has gradually been shifted from rail onto long haul trucks, much to the delight of private sector transport contractors, but the consequences are being felt across the board: increased transport costs, damage to road networks, traffic congestion, increased CO2 emissions etc.

However there is a glimmer of good news amid the gloom: the Forestry South Africa (FSA) team that attended a recent high level meeting between President Ramaphosa, senior ministers, captains of industry and the members of Operation Vulindlela, report that there are strong signals from government that they are gearing up to address the logistics bottlenecks at last. This follows a frank admission by the President himself that the transport challenges are as damaging to our prospects of economic growth as are the electricity challenges.

The forestry sector was well represented at the meeting by FSA’s Michael Peter and Francois Oberholzer, along with the CEOs of Sappi, Mondi, NCT, TWK and PG Bison.

Furthermore, the President has agreed that private sector participation in ports and rail must be fast-tracked as Transnet cannot address the challenges on its own. This aligns with the recommendations of the private sector forestry stakeholders who have indicated a willingness to get involved in facilitating the operation of a freight service utilising Transnet infrastructure that is dedicated to timber.

The President also indicated that regulatory and structural reforms recommended by the Operation Vulindlela team are already being implemented; and that a national logistics crisis committee – similar to the one that is addressing electricity outages – is being established in the presidency.

This is a significant step forward according to FSA, as without such a committee there is no hope of achieving alignment between Transnet and the relevant government departments that impact on freight rail infrastructure and services.

Apparently the President has already met with the Transnet board and other ministries to set the ball rolling.

One of the key challenges is that the forestry sector is a minor player in freight rail, contributing only a fraction of the total tonnage of goods like coal, chrome and manganese moved on the country’s rail networks. This has resulted in available locomotives and wagons being deployed to haul coal and other BIG commodities while the service to timber customers has become less and less reliable.

The imminent visit by Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan to China to resolve the stand-off over the delivery of locomotives and spares by Chinese state rail equipment manufacturers to Transnet is another sign that something positive and constructive is on the go. The impasse between Chinese state rail equipment suppliers and Transnet occurred because of alegations of improper awarding of tenders worth some R54 billion.

Another bone of contention between government authorities and the forestry sector are the regulations that are limiting the use of PBS vehicles to haul timber by road. These trucks are capable of carrying bigger payloads (up to 70 tons vs 38 tons for a standard long haul truck) and bring many benefits for the timber growers, but can only be utilised under special permits issued by transport authorities. Use of PBS vehicles is still strictly a ‘pilot project’, but it has long since demonstrated improvements in safety, efficiency and cost.

In this regard the President has agreed that the Minister of DFFE should be drawn in to help solve these challenges. Meanwhile minister Chikunga of DoT, in responding to points made by the FSA team, said that she has approved the exceptions for ISO and High Cube containers which indicates that the PBS exemptions will follow shortly. This has been a decade-long challenge with the DoT and will provide major relief for the forestry sector and others using PBS vehicles.

FSA Operations Director Francois Oberholzer said that forestry stakeholders are preparing to submit an unsolicited bid to Transnet in an effort to get involved in the operation of a freight service on the Greytown branch line which services many commercial timber growers. The service levels on this important line have been falling for years.

At the end of the day tree farmers need to get their timber to market as cheaply and efficiently as possible, and everyday road users will be happy to see timber going back onto rail where it belongs.

Faltering rail service undermines competitiveness of the forest sector

A logistical nightmare is busy unfolding for forestry and downstream industries in South Africa as the freight rail service that it depends on to get over a million tons of timber a year from the Mpumalanga/KZN highveld to the processing mills in Richards Bay appears to be falling apart at the seams. Industry stakeholders that spoke to SA Forestry were at their wits end after the so-called ‘Wood Owl’ train that uses the coal line to Richards Bay ground to a halt for over a week in early March due to problems with availability of locomotives.

According to the state-owned Transnet Freight Rail the Wood Owl train service is back in operation now, but industry insiders say it is still operating below capacity, and there appears to be no end in sight to the unreliable service on this important route.

The problems on the Wood Owl are just the tip of the iceberg as users of the remaining branch rail lines still serving timber in KwaZulu-Natal are ‘gatvol’ over the poor, unreliable service they have been experiencing for years. This is further compounded by reports of shoddy service and disruptions at the ports of Richards Bay and Durban through which most of the forestry products, namely pulp and wood chips, are exported.

Forestry stakeholders that are heavily dependent on these rail transport routes are scrambling to find alternative ways of getting timber to their mills which have to maintain scheduled production levels to meet export orders. This involves moving timber onto long haul road trucks where possible, or sourcing more timber locally in Zululand and reducing harvests in the highveld plantations that are far from the mills.

Rail to road
Firstly, shifting timber from rail onto long haul road trucks increases transport costs significantly, while increasing congestion and wear and tear on our national roads, not to mention the additional carbon dioxide emissions that these vehicles are pumping into the atmosphere. Secondly, moving timber from rail to road at short notice is easier said than done as long haul trucks are expensive items and road freight operators require long term contracts in order to justify the purchase of additional vehicles.

The industry currently moves 1.3 million tons of timber a year on the ‘Wood Owl’ train – which uses the coal line that connects the coal fields to Richards Bay - to feed four mills in Richards Bay. This transport link is vital to ensuring that commercial forestry is competitive in the highveld regions of Mpumalanga and KZN, which are located some 250 kms from Richards Bay.

The service challenges on the coal line are nothing new, and don’t only affect the timber industry. Mining and agriculture sectors are also being severely impacted.

Common sense suggests that South Africa as a country should be moving more bulk goods on rail – not less – but common sense is trumped by a litany of issues at the state-owned Transnet Freight Rail that are impacting on operational and administrative efficiencies, coupled with the criminality of people who are stealing the rail infrastructure piece by piece.

The explanation from TFR for the latest service disruptions on the coal line is non-availability of locomotives. Forestry stakeholders are saying that available locomotive resources – such as they are - are being allocated to the coal sector at the expense of timber, which constitutes just 2% of the freight that is transported on that line.

A TFR spokesperson told SA Forestry that the Wood Owl train is back in operation. “The service was temporarily withdrawn for TFR to refit some of the locomotives enabling them to be used on the export coal line as well. TFR has been transparent with customers regarding the challenges that the company is facing in respect of the unavailability of locomotive spares (due to the suspension of the 1064 contract) which in turn impacts locomotive availability. This has meant that TFR reallocate available rolling stock across the business to meet the company’s commitments,” said the spokesperson.

Seeking solutions
Forestry industry stakeholders are understandably reluctant to speak out on the latest woes of the freight rail service as they are engaging with TFR and at the highest levels of government in a bid to try and find lasting solutions to the logistical bottlenecks around rail and the ports. Many industry stakeholders that spoke to SA Forestry believe that the only solution is to allow private freight operators access to key rail corridors in a bid to provide a decent freight service for timber. Industry representatives are currently engaging with TFR and the Minister of Public Enterprises to explore this option.

Forestry South Africa, which represents the majority of forest owners, has issued the following statement to the media following the latest disruptions on the coal line:-

“The Forestry Industry finds itself in a grave situation regarding rail transport on the coal line. With the increase in commodity prices, especially coal, it is apparent that all locomotive resources at TFR (Transnet Freight Rail) are being allocated to the Coal Sector, leaving smaller industries that utilise this line, such as Forestry, in a dire situation. There is a shortage of locomotives, and thus far, no immediate solution is in sight. Our industry moved approximately 3.5 million tons of timber by rail in 2005, and this volume has currently declined to under 2 million tons. The industry presently moves 1.3 million tons per year by rail from the Highveld to the Richards Bay region via the Coal Line, feeding four processing plants. This supply chain has now been severely affected by the disruption in the rail supply chain. The effects of this are felt right back into the value chain. Approximately 5% of the population of Mpumalanga and 2.7% of KZN are dependent on the Forestry sector, and as a significant employer in the rural areas, these people will be hit the hardest. This situation cannot continue, and we are working hard with TFR to look at solutions.”

NCT’s Commercial Manager, James van Zyl, told SA Forestry that the coal line is still operating way below capacity and there are also on-going service problems on the KZN branch lines which are used by NCT members. One of the problems that resulted in the temporary interruption of service on the branch lines, according to James, was grass growing over the tracks, a result of good summer rains. (You will be relieved to know that TFR says it is preparing a tender for vegetation control on affected lines to prevent a re-occurrence of this setback. )

James said that before the current service failures NCT was moving around 400 000 tons of timber a year on rail to their mills at Richards Bay and Durban, as well as the Sappi-Saiccor mill at Umkomaas.

Dedicated transhipment depot
In order to take advantage of the benefits that rail transport offers members, NCT opened a dedicated transhipment depot within the greater Transnet Vryheid East Marshalling Yard in November 2019, designed specifically to transfer timber from road to rail. It is managed as an extension of NCT’s Richards Bay supply chain. The throughput at the depot ramped up to 120 000 tons per annum within a few months of commissioning, which removed around 3 525 loaded heavy vehicle truck trips per annum between Vryheid and R/Bay, plus the same number of empty return loads.

Apart from the benefits to road safety, congestion, road surface wear and tear and a reduction in emissions, the big benefit for NCT’s timber suppliers, especially those located north of Vryheid, are significant transport cost savings.

This transhipment facility has the capacity to handle 20 000 tons of timber per month or more. However as a result of the current wave of freight rail unreliability that is being experienced, NCT is planning to move only 2 000 tons through the transhipment facility next month. The rest of the timber harvested from this catchment will go back onto the road. This could have long term consequences for timber logistics in the region.

“You can’t just move timber from rail to road short term,” said James. “New PBS vehicles cost around R4 million so you have to commit for three to four years. Once timber goes off rail onto road it’s going to be hard to get it back onto rail,” he said.

In case you think this scenario is just affecting a few forestry corporates while the rest of us get away unscathed, consider this: the forestry industry in South Africa grows and harvests the primary raw material for forest products that contribute 4.5% of total manufacturing GDP and 25% of agricultural GDP. The sector provides a positive trade balance of close to R10 billion, and supports an estimated 700 000 livelihoods in South Africa.

Forestry Sector Materplan
The Forestry Sector Masterplan that was approved by government in June 2019, which is deemed a priority sector under the Public Private Growth Initiative, identified transport (road and rail) logistics as a key inhibitor to investment and growth in the sector. It called for greater alignment between industry and Transnet Freight Rail, as well as active resolution of rail related issues through the establishment of a ‘One-Stop Shop’ at Transnet. The Masterplan specifically calls on TFR to improve reliability in collecting from depots, and greater adherence to delivery schedules.

The ‘One-Stop Shop’ facility hasn’t happened – no surprises there - but industry is actively engaging with Transnet and Minister Pravin Gordhan directly in a bid to resolve rail freight issues. Allowing access to the rail network for third party freight operators as a possible solution to the ongoing service delivery failures at TFR is firmly on the agenda.

An independent freight rail operator active in Africa reported recently that it takes six days for freight to travel by rail from DRC to the border of South Africa, and it takes 26 days to get from the border of SA to Richards Bay.

Go figure that one out!!