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South Africa Table of Contents

South Africa

Transportation and Telecommunications

South Africa has a well-developed transportation system, the product of more than a century of government investment. The Ministry of Transport, formerly part of the Ministry of Transport, Posts, and Telecommunications, handles national transportation policy. The South African Railways and Harbours Administration, established in 1910, managed the operations of most of the nation's transportation network; in 1985 it became the South African Transport Services (SATS). In 1990 SATS reorganized as the public commercial company, Transnet.

Transnet has six business divisions--Spoornet to operate the railroads; Portnet to manage the country's extensive port system; Autonet, a comprehensive road transport service; South African Airways (SAA); Petronet to manage petroleum pipelines; and a parcel delivery service, known as "PX." With assets of nearly R35 billion, Transnet is one of the country's largest business enterprises, employing roughly 120,000 people in 1995. The government is the sole shareholder in Transnet but is considering the privatization of some sectors of transportation management by the end of the decade.


When the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910, railroad authorities had to unify and to coordinate the operations of the four separate provincial railroad systems. Rail transport was already a critical element in economic development because it linked mining, agricultural, and urban areas and moved unprocessed raw materials (primarily minerals) to the coast for transport between South African ports and for export. The major axis of railroad transportation at the beginning of the twentieth century--linking Cape Town, Durban, and present-day Maputo in Mozambique, and running inland to the mining centers of Kimberley and Johannesburg--still forms the major axis of railroad transportation almost a century later (see fig. 17).

The national rail authority, Spoornet, manages a network of 21,303 kilometers of 1.067-meter, narrow-gauge (regional standard) rail lines throughout the country. An additional 314 kilometers of track are .610-meter gauge. In addition to hauling freight (roughly 164 million tons in 1993-94), intercity passenger trains carry more than 600 million passengers per year.

Rail transportation relied on steam power or steam-generated electricity as a result of the country's easy access to coal and its lack of petroleum resources. Some of the rail lines were electrified as early as 1926. In the 1970s, the railroads began phasing out the use of steam locomotives in favor of electricity in order to increase the carrying capacity and the speed of trains, especially those used to haul heavy mineral ores and coal for export. By the early 1990s, more than half of the rail network was electrified, and most rail traffic--both passenger and freight--was carried by electric locomotives.

Suburban commuter trains are important to many industrial and urban workers who live in the formerly segregated townships or rural areas, but the commuter lines are the least cost-effective rail service. The South African Rail Commuter Corporation (SARCC), relying on government subsidies of more than R600 million a year, manages these trains. Many trains are in poor condition, in part the result of the serious urban violence of the early 1990s, which often centered on the commuter rail lines as symbols of apartheid. The SARCC began refurbishing and modernizing rail coaches in 1994, at a cost of some US$180,000 per vehicle. Several private railroads also operate suburban commuter train service in several large cities.

Fast freight trains operate on eighteen routes nationwide, sometimes approaching speeds of 120 kilometers per hour, although the more common speed of rail travel is about sixty kilometers per hour. Railroad officials claimed a world record in 1989 when a 71,600-ton train ran at speeds of up to eighty kilometers per hour on the 861-kilometer Sishen-Saldanha ore line. Spoornet implemented a computerized operating information system in the early 1990s to manage high levels of rail traffic. In 1994 this system reported on more than 3,000 trains daily, often involving as many as 5,500 locomotives and 100,000 rail cars.

South Africa's luxury line, the Blue Train, travels the 1,600-kilometer route between Pretoria and Cape Town and is an important tourist attraction. Other well-known trains are the Trans-Oranj, which runs 2,088 kilometers between Durban and Cape Town; the Trans-Natal, which runs 721 kilometers between Johannesburg and Durban; the Diamond Express, which runs 563 kilometers between Pretoria and Kimberley; and the Limpopo, which runs 1,376 kilometers between Johannesburg and Harare, Zimbabwe. The Blue Train and the Trans-Karoo (between Johannesburg and Cape Town) have facilities for carrying passenger cars.

South Africa's railroads are also vital to the economies of several neighboring countries, especially landlocked Lesotho and Botswana, and Mozambique, where existing railroads have been sabotaged and destroyed through warfare. In 1990 the general managers from eight national railroads (South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Zaire) formed a joint operations working group to integrate rail service in the region. In 1994 they began to coordinate timetables for scheduled freight service in order to speed transit of export commodities and perishables between countries. They also streamlined customs inspections and allowed trains to leave border stations with only partial loads of freight. As a result, during 1995, freight carried from Johannesburg to southern Zaire sometimes arrived in seven days, down from as much as forty days for the same journey in the past.

Data as of May 1996

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