Time for private sector participation in rail?

UN economist Dr Vera Songwe was one of the keynote speakers at the Africa Rail Expo.

It’s time for the continent to bring in the private sector in a broader and more effective way to help finance revolutionising railways.

That was the message from Dr Vera Songwe, executive secretary of the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa, in her keynote address at the Africa Rail Conference currently under way at Sandton Convention Centre.

Commenting on how capex shortfalls were stopping development in its tracks, she suggested that, as with insurance investment and fund management, railway financing be developed into a new asset class “with standardised rules, regulations, and harmonised processes and procedures”.

But public-private partnerships were not necessarily always the answer to cost-intensive research and development (R&D) projects, said Timothy Zalanga, director of planning at the Nigerian Railway Corporation.

According to Zalanga, funding and the enabling role it plays in R&D often comes down to a classic case of charity starting at home.

He pointed out, for example, how through refurbishing Nigeria was adding extra life to rolling stock and infrastructure that elsewhere might have been scrapped.

Ultimately it’s about dealing with escalating capacity demand, said Barbara Mommen, CEO of the Maputo Corridor Logistics Initiative.

“Road freight is over-subscribed and it’s about time that we have certain discussions about rail which, with 20-25% of bulk freight compared to the 75-80% of transport, “is on the back foot”.

It’s why technological advancement and its potential to revolutionise the rail freight industry is crucial to meet the demand of growing capacity, said Brian Monakali, general manager of strategic long-term planning and development at Transnet.

In his presentation he delved into developmental approaches such as predictive maintenance to cut down on downtime and ensure uninterrupted workflow.

“We only make money if we carry on moving.”

The role of technology in this regard, said Monakeli, could not be overstated.

“It holds the key,” he stressed, “which will help us to meet demand through capacity.

“We must go from good to great.”

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