SOUTH AFRICA’S national railway Spoornet has on many occasions helped its Cape gauge neighbours to the north with technical expertise, supply of rolling stock and motive power. Now it is Spoornet that is in need of help - although something more fundamental is called for.

The recent economic downturn brought a loss of R136m for the year ended on March 31 compared with a profit of R573m the previous year. The board at once set out to draw up a series of proposals to secure the railway’s future, and Mercer Consulting presented three options in July.

Option 1 to retain the status quo was quickly rejected. Option 2 would cut the network from 20319 to to 7100 route-km, with the payroll reduced from 43000 to 11500. Operating costs would more than halve from R8·4bn to R3·8bn, taking the business into profit by 2003.

The preferred option, dubbed Full Efficiency Middle Network, proposes 10300 route-km and 15000 employees. Spoornet says that the general freight loco fleet would be cut to 1700 and the number of general purpose wagons to 68000.

At this stage it is far from clear whether the other routes would be closed or offered to other operators. There is a possibility that local authorities could assist, one model being the Alicedale - Grahamstown branch. Publicity is funded by the local community, and we are told that Spoornet’s target of R10000 of ticket sales a month is consistently exceeded. Freight tonnage is reported to have doubled in the last three years. Support is provided by the Grahamstown Railway Job Creation Project, backed by local organisations.

According to Managing Director of Transnet Saki Macozoma, Spoornet must suffer pain now or there will be even worse to come in the future. We have no doubt that there is still huge scope for efficiency gains on Spoornet, but attention should also be given to Spoornet’s rivals. In the last eight years the legal limit for lorry weight has risen from 48 to 56 tonnes. No doubt the extra costs for road maintenance, accidents, noise and pollution have not been built into the equation.