Durban – Johannesburg Rail Developments


There have been a considerable number of public announcements about the potential and possible future development of rail freight and passenger services between Gauteng and Durban. Many of the statements do not offer sufficient information for the public to appreciate the implications of the various statements that are made.

There is urgent need to examine, analyse and evaluate many pertinent facts about the railway situation as a basis for debate and planning. The intention of this article is to provide some comparative data between rail and road and to examine the issues regarding rail and passenger services on this route.

Length of the Freight Routes

The length of the Natcor mainline rail route is approximately 730 kms of double track –electrified lines at   3 kV DC. The length of line between Union in Gauteng and Durban is 698 kms.

The road route length is 580 kms along the  N3 Corridor, much of which is a 4 lane tolled highway.

Freight Demand per Mode

Rail Freight moving the whole distance between Durban and Gauteng varies from 8-10 million tons per year.  Route capacity is about 45 million tons per year. The route is also used by  Shosholoza Meyl  passenger services ( 18 trains per week).

Road Freight on the corridor was approximately 42 million tons in 2007 with possibly 28 million tons travelling the whole length of the route. This reduced somewhat during the period 2008-2010 and is increasing again. The route is also heavily used by passenger traffic.

Average Speeds

Trains run at average speeds of 40-60 kms per hour but scheduling required stops to permit passing and to allow for headway between trains. Average overall train time over the Natcor route is between 12 and 14 hours i.e. 50 kms per hour.

Road freight vehicles are theoretically limited to 80 kms per hour and the actual average travel speed for a loaded 56 tons combination on the Durban to Gauteng route is approximately 60 kms per hour.

Average Loads

Freight trains are typically compiled into 50 x 40 ton wagon trains with 2-4 locomotives as required for the gross train weight, and dependent on locomotive specifications. Gross train weight is about 4000 tons and payloads are therefore about 2000-3000 tons per train.

Road freight vehicles are limited to 56 tons GCM giving a maximum payload of about 38 tons. The average payload is typically about 28 tons and about 15% of the vehicles travel empty.

Considerations Regarding Standard Gauge Developments

There have been several announcements about the “need “ to switch the rail gauge in South Africa from “Cape gauge” (1067 mm) to “standard gauge” (1435 mm). The implications of such a move are the subject of much debate in official circles. The assumed advantage of higher line-haul speed may have some benefits, if not negated by the other systemic delays.

The implications of reducing the geographic coverage and flexibility of the  rail services will however be almost universally negative in relation to the objective of providing a service that can be as flexible and competitive as road haulage. Some of the major factors that bear consideration in the rail gauge debate, include the following.

Rail Freight

  1. Very little freight traffic has need for high transit speed, and therefore freight customers will not carry extra costs to achieve high line-haul speed. There is minimal inherent or automatic payload difference between gauges. Wagon payloads  increase with width and tare mass does likewise. Track carrying capacity is not dependent on width.
  2. Where speed from door to door is required road freight will nearly always be more competitive. The exception is found in industries related to bulk commodities where the consignor has siding and handling facilities.
  3. Most delays on rail are systemic, due to shunting , marshalling , depot delays etc., not due to the travelling time over the route. These will not change due to faster line-haul speed actual current line haulage time from Durban to Johannesburg is about 12 hours for rail and 9 hours for road [with essential driver stops])
  4. Freight rail services do not end at a station; this means that all the branches to which wagons must be delivered must be the same gauge. Until there are sufficient distribution branch lines to collect and deliver cargo the tonnage will be restricted to terminals on the main line. All  cargo would have to be delivered to the railhead by  road vehicles. It is likely that this will cause much traffic to  switch mode to road. For example the entire port systems of Durban, Cape Town, Richards Bay etc and  many marshalling yard systems Sentrarand, will have to be reconstructed (and this must be done without disrupting the current levels of essential import-export businesses).
  5. Laying wider gauge tracks onto existing formations is not possible in many sections of track due to track-bed width and curve radius limitations so that there will be an extensive need for earthworks and realignment of tracks.
  6. Where existing tracks service stations en route, there will be major reconstruction problems to lift and realign the track tracks within the rail reserve.
  7. Once standard gauge is in place on main routes, all old locomotives become unusable and have to be replaced or rebuilt to the different gauge.
  8. With different gauges, there are two systems that are effectively disconnected. In the Southern African context, this extends beyond our borders.
  9. The only remedy to the dual gauge problem is to build extensive transfer facilities, or three rail sections of line, if the costs can be justified.
  10. The cost justification for introducing a wider gauge will need to be stringently examined, as the total capital costs of renewing the entire rail system could raise rail freight rates to the point where nearly all freight moves to road transport.


There are continual reports of current problems with delayed capital expenditure, deferred maintenance, skills deficits, uncompetitive rates and unsatisfactory service of freight railways. The introduction of a further complication in the form of a gauge change seems likely to aggravate , not resolve any of the problems.

On the question of mixing freight and high speed passenger services on the Durban-Gauteng route the following considerations are relevant.

  1. Slow moving heavy freight trains are dangerous in combination with high speed passenger trains.(see table below)
  2. The difference in train speeds introduces the need for very long headways between passenger trains travelling  at 150-200  kms per hour and goods trains at 50 kms per hour, thereby reducing the overall line capacity.
  3. Rail freight services will reduce in efficiency to the extent that they are held in passing loops to permit  passing by passenger trains. Freight transit times may even increase.
  4. High speed passenger lines require very intensive maintenance schedules and if combined with heavy freight trains the requirement would be even more stringent.
  5. High speed passenger routes require very precise and gentle changes in alignment and grade changes, and are therefore very expensive to build in broken topography.
  6. The owners or operators of the high-speed line must normally charge the freight operator much higher track charges than the passenger operator based on the ton/kilometres of track usage. This may further prejudice the viability of the freight service, in comparison with road transport.

Passenger Rail on the Gauteng-Durban Corridor

  1. Travel estimates on the Durban to Gauteng route in 2006 were as follows and though they may have changed a little, will serve to illustrate the levels of possible usage of a fast train service.  The total passenger movements estimated above are for both directions so that anticipated movements could be 1600-2000  per day in each direction. If this is escalated by 50% to project the numbers to 2020 when a rail system could be operational the numbers will be about 6000 per day (3000 return journeys) or 1.1 million return passenger journeys per year.
  2. In order to move the volumes there will be a need for about 5 trains per day in  each direction.
  3. The existing 730 kms route has about 250 kms of flat terrain on the Highveld where speed may reach 300 kms per hour, but due to a mountainous section along the escarpment of about 200 kms and then the rolling topography of Kwa Zulu Natal for the remaining 200 kms the average speed is likely to reduce to 160 kms per hour (which is typical in Germany). A new route could conceivably shorten to the distance to 650 kilometres  giving a journey time of about 4 hours. The journey from Paris to Marseille takes just over 3 hours, for the 783 km trip at an average speed of 261 kph.
  4. The options for creating a shorter route will be complicated by decisions whether  to try to provide stations at some significant towns such as Heidelberg, Villiers, Harrismith, Ladysmith, Newcastle and Pietermaritzburg. And of course stops will increase the journey time from end to end.
  5. The cost of such a new line are at this point unknown, but based on the 80 kilometre Gautrain development and the engineering difficulties that will be posed by the terrain, the costs could easily be R 250-400 billion. If this is amortised over 40 years at 6% the annual R10 billion capital cost will need to be recovered from about 1.1 million return passenger journeys at about R8,800 per ticket. Operating costs are not known but in the EU they typically amount to about ZAR 0.04 -0.06 per gross train ton km, which amounts to about  R150.00 – R250.00  per passenger journey for a typical 750 seater train.
  6. Using the currently available information,  the above cost estimate  compares well with the second class fare from Paris to Marseille (783 kms) of € 935 (R9, 537) in 2011.
  7. The numbers of potential passengers will no doubt be affected by the fare price, and the price will no doubt determine the categories of passengers that may use the service. No attempt has been made to escalate the fare estimate for inflation up to 2020.

(Source AA Jorgensen – RailRoad Ass.( 2007) (Author’s estimate 2011)