The biggest potential for growth in the materials handling industry lies in the bulk, or freight, rail networks, with a sizeable amount of the country’s planned investment in rail infrastructure projects aimed at maintaining it as the key global player it is, says engineering and design firm WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, Africa.
WSP divisional director Vishaal Lutchman says ongoing and ramped-up investment in rail infrastructure projects was first acknowledged in 2012, when State-owned freight utility Transnet launched its R300-billion-worth Market Development Strategy (MDS).
This is a seven-year investment scheme with a clear strategy to revive the country’s ports, rail, pipelines and supply chain infrastructure. In the initial estimates of the MDS, rail volumes were projected to increase from about 200-million tons to 350-million tons by 2023/24 based on a yearly growth rate between 2.7% and 4.8%.
While the state of the global economy has since dampened this outlook in the short term somewhat, he states: “Should such growth materialise, it certainly bodes a significant growth opportunity for the country.”
Prioritising spending, including deferring infrastructure project spend has become somewhat of an industry trend in South Africa, which can be attributed to the country’s slow economic growth last year and weak growth in the first two quarters of this year.
The nature of our markets makes us susceptible to supply-demand risk, currency volatility and commodity pricing. Such reduction in capital spend has the immediate impact of reducing spend on government-led initiatives, Lutchman says.
He states that additional trends are, however, increasing the efficiencies of existing operations. This includes energy use, automation of materials handling as well as advanced ship to shore cranes, which indicates the growing use of technology. “Overall, the technology used in South Africa is world class, as the country certainly has the best mining and transportation infrastructure networks on the continent and in many cases the world.”
Some technologies, such as project management systems, integration systems and scheduling systems, for example, are quite inexpensive to access. These systems contribute to the efficient operations of the port and rail networks.
“We have moved boldly towards establishing high technology manufacturing hubs for the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) build programme. These hubs were established for PRASA’s Rolling Stock Fleet Renewal Programme to assemble the new coaches to satisfy rail passenger demand on the current network until 2020.”
This initiative will create new jobs, grow the skills base and contribute to the overall industry and South Africa’s economy, notes Lutchman. Depending on how flexible these production facilities are, they could grow to assemble trains for the next phase of the Gautrain as well as provide capacity for light rail solutions on the African continent.
Although investment in infrastructure and technology has become an industry trend, Lutchman points out that, an ongoing industry challenge is that much of the materials handling infrastructure, when considering pit to port facilities – particularly rail infrastructure – is old and has been, to a large extent, poorly maintained over several decades.
Electrification and signalling systems can be modernised as well as loading facilities on the mine side. Efficient infrastructure, even through rationalising loading, can provide much needed capacity on the existing network.
However, projects and investments by government, such as those of PRASA, power utility Eskom and Transnet, as well as private–public partnerships, to significantly upgrade, maintain, and even build new infrastructure, are planned for implementation, he says.
Lutchman adds that the ability of government to develop the appropriate business model to involve the private sector remains to be driven by the State-owned companies.
He reiterates that these vital projects and investments are aimed at increasing the country’s rail capacity to transport people, goods and services, as well as bulk materials or natural resources from the mines to ports.
“In the short term, the current system challenges provide the opportunity for collaboration between government and the private sector to develop and plan the approach while volumes are at a low,” Lutchman says.
Compounding the maintenance challenges is the lack of skills in engineering and construction. South Africa has a shortage of experienced and capable technical leaders in both the public sector, where government projects need to be planned and committed to, and in the private sector, where projects need to be executed. Lutchman emphasises that this challenge is not unique to South Africa – these skills are not readily available within the borders of any country and there is a shortage of key engineering and construction skills worldwide.
Moreover, he points out that like most skills, these specialisations are mobile and easily exported to the US, Canada, Australia and the Middle East which remain lucrative destinations for competent and talented individuals.
He adds that having these skills in-country is the ideal long-term objective, but in reality, the private sector can plan and develop the local skills pipeline effectively only if there is a clear indication that projects will be implemented and there is a solid commitment from government to ensure they are executed. Failing this, the professionals concerned will make their own plans, says Lutchman.
To mitigate this challenge, industry players in the private sector are taking on apprentices or junior engineers and providing them with on-the-job training and development as far as is practically possible, but more can be done, he stresses.
“The best training ground is the project itself and more projects mean more training and growth for technical talent,” Lutchman says.
Added to this, Lutchman notes that an engineering company that values its people will also offer support for professional registration with industry bodies – such as Consulting Engineers South Africa or the South African Institute of Civil Engineers – and provide candidate engineers with access to career guidance, counselling, mentorship and opportunities to get involved in challenging projects.
“This helps to grow young candidates’ professional development, as they earn the experience required to achieve and maintain their professional registration,” he concludes.