by Jennigay Coetzer

(1010 words)

(Note: This article was written for the South African online publication Road Ahead.)

Transporting goods by road is becoming increasingly challenging, but there are ways to address some of the issues. About 89% of all commercial freight tonnage in South Africa is transported by road and only 12% by rail, due to the poor performance of rail.

This puts an enormous strain on the road infrastructure, much of which is already in a bad state of repair, and results in increased traffic congestion, and higher vehicle maintenance costs. It also increases travel distances and reduces operational efficiency due to detours.

According to the National Planning Commission, 20% of the paved road network is currently classified as being in a “poor” or “very poor” condition.

The bigger picture of transportation challenges includes volatile fuel prices, toll costs, stricter carbon requirements, lack of policies, poor co-ordination among government departments and their agencies, offloading turnaround times, and delays at border points. Turnaround times often exceed four hours, while delays at Beitbridge and Chirundu borders average 24 to 48 hours.

Cross border facilities have not kept up with the massive increase in fleet activity over the past 10 years. This is due to factors such as lack of standardisation of documentation between regional governments and authorities, lack of integrated documentation systems, little to no incremental investment, and a lack of upskilling and an insufficient number of officials.

The scarcity of skills, particularly in areas such as qualified drivers and technicians, impact vehicle operating costs, accident rates, fuel consumption, vehicle downtime and lifespan, and result in increased pressure for higher wages and related labour unrest.

Of the licensed truck drivers who apply for positions, 92% to 94% do not meet minimum requirements. All of these negative factors are contributing to rising logistics operating costs.

There is a general call to shift freight from road to rail, especially for bulk transport, to reduce carbon emissions and bring down costs. The ultimate goal is to build an interlinked rail and port infrastructure, supported by road.

More inland port terminals are also needed, and systems need to be put in place to enable cargo to be moved quickly and efficiently between road and rail. But to achieve these goals will require a lot more impetus on the part of government to deliver on its commitment to invest vast sums of money in infrastructure development.

According to the National Planning Commission (NPC), 96% of South Africa’s exports are conveyed by sea, which underlines the importance of the country’s ports. Some 34% of the country’s GVA – a productivity metric that measures the difference between output and intermediate consumption – is concentrated in Gauteng province, which is a considerable distance from the ports, according to the NPC.

Transporting bulk goods over long distances by rail costs significantly less than by road and has a smaller carbon footprint.

A lot of the challenges mentioned here are beyond the control of transport managers.

However, measures can be taken to mitigate risks such as the rising cost of carrying inventory, and cargo imbalances that result in millions of rands wasted on empty return trips. These measures include optimising vehicle fleets, using more fuel efficient vehicles, strategic route planning, ensuring drivers adhere to efficient driving practices, having the right systems in place and generally optimising the logistics process.

The right transport management service can cut costs by 15% to 20% by transforming and optimising the distribution network. Companies are going to find themselves under increasing pressure to optimise their logistics infrastructure and processes in an environmentally responsible way.

Transport is responsible for about 11% of South Africa’s total greenhouse gas emissions and is the biggest area of logistics that affects the environment, but it is one of the easiest components to address strategically.

Another emerging trend is smart trucks, which are based on Performance Based Standards (PBS) and were first introduced in the US some years ago with the aim of improving the overall performance of extra-heavy vehicles. Smart trucks are known to provide improved stability, reduce the number of vehicle trips, require fewer trucks on the road, improve transport productivity, reduce carbon emissions and significantly reduce road wear.

These vehicles are typically longer and carry heavier loads than other trucks, and are therefore limited to travelling on certain roads. The underlying Performance Based Standards on which these trucks are based allows vehicle designers to use the latest innovative design techniques.

To operate smart trucks requires special permits issued by the Department of Transport (DoT).

Another practice that is gaining traction in overseas markets among manufacturers is reshoring, which entails sourcing more products locally to reduce the number of kilometres travelled to transport goods to their destination and reduce carbon emissions.

One of the positive spin-offs of reshoring is that it creates more local jobs and keeps money circulating through the local economy that would otherwise flow out of the country.

According to MIT’s Forum for Supply Chain Innovation survey on reshoring, nearly half of the manufacturers in the US are considering following this practice and it is also catching on in Europe.


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