IF any Transnet officials have noticed the irony of looking to lorries to reinvigorate part of its general freight business, they are staying quiet about it.

In 1985 when the South African government scrapped the permit system which restricted private road-haulage in favour of rail transport, private shippers - tired of decades of poor or absent service - deserted the state-owned railway in droves. The decline continued through the 1990s and into the new century. As single wagonload traffic and general freight continued to evaporate, the railway cut services and closed thousands of kilometres of uneconomic branch lines.

RailrunnerMeanwhile, as the country’s road-haulage industry boomed, traffic congestion grew apace and the roads began to crumble under the daily assault of heavy lorries - at 56 tonnes gross vehicle mass, South Africa’s lorries are among the heaviest in the world.

Now it is lorries to which Transnet has turned in its stated aim to shift traffic from road back to rail. This is in line with Transnet’s market demand strategy in which the company will spend Rand 340bn ($US 24.9bn) by 2020 on new locomotives and infrastructure, much of which is earmarked for its general freight business.

The 20-year agreement between Transnet and RailRunner South Africa, a subsidiary of privately-held US-based RailRunner, announced late last year, is a small but significant shift in the way Africa’s largest railway does business.

The deal will see two 40-wagon test trains of lorry trailers running on locally-built RailRunner bogies on Transnet’s 1400km “Capecor” corridor between Cape Town and South Africa’s economic heart in Gauteng. The trains will operate between terminals at Belleville, Cape Town’s rail hub, and the industrial zone of Isando in Gauteng. Both sites are blessed with dense road networks, which will be vital to proving the project’s viability.

RailRunner estimates the 20-year deal is worth $US 400m in freight revenues and equipment sales.

RailRunner uses a bespoke trailer designed to run over the road as well as rail. The RailRunner trailers and bogies form a bimodal block train which can be coupled to a locomotive for haulage between terminals.

The company’s “Terminal Anywhere” system allows terminals to be set-up wherever there is enough level ground, without the need for cranes, gantries or a conventional container terminal.

RailRunner is currently busy with homologation which involves adapting the technology from standard gauge to 1067mm Cape gauge, with local engineers supervised by RailRunner technicians.

The RailRunner bogies and the lorry trailers will be built locally, in line with Transnet’s localisation requirements. RailRunner South Africa’s chief executive Mr Mike Daniel says the search for local contractors is under way and that orders are expected to be placed early this year.

The road-rail vehicles will also have to undergo stringent licensing procedures with Transnet and also with the country’s standards bureau. “It’s quite a process,” says Daniel.

RailRunner says the system offers a number of benefits over standard flatwagons. For one thing they are lighter which translates into energy savings and lower emissions, while the trailers are also able to carry containers closer together, resulting in 20-40% more cargo capacity.

If the tests prove successful and RailRunner trains enter service on Transnet metals, the effect of South Africa’s transport landscape could be dramatic.

Road freight in South Africa has grown 48% in the past decade, according to figures from the Road Freight Association (RFA), a private body which represents the road-haulage industry.

Lorries accounted for 1.5 billion tonnes of the 1.67 billion tonnes of land freight carried in 2014, leaving rail with a relatively paltry 220 million tonnes.

It is a picture seen most dramatically on the critical corridor between Durban and Gauteng where heavy goods vehicles make up 34% of the traffic on the 600km national road.

According to RFA figures, there are more than 557,795 lorries over 3500kg on South Africa’s roads, with the industry employing around 103,000 formal and informal employees. However, the industry is under pressure from a stagnating economy, with the RFA reporting 14 months of year-on-year decline.

Much of the decline is the result of convulsions in the mining industry with many mines having closed at the end of the global commodity boom.

The fact that the road-haulage has been hard hit by the downtown in commodity cycle is an indication of just how much minerals traffic goes by road.

One reason for this is the large number of new mines - especially in the coal sector - that do not have rail connections and hence are forced to rely on lorries to carry their product.

An unintended consequence of this is a growing outcry from private citizens over increasing congestion and the damage being done to the country’s roads by overloaded lorries.

South Africa’s road repair backlog currently stands at an estimated Rand 150bn, and some provinces have been unable to keep up with even basic repairs to their networks.

One of RailRunner’s marketing hooks is that its technology will improve the quality of lorry drivers’ lives by allowing them to run shorter, safer trips and get home every night instead of being out on the road. In a country where drivers are often away from home for days or even weeks at a time and where hijacking and theft remains a real risk, that is likely to be an enticing prospect.

South Africa’s struggling branch lines may also benefit from a bimodal service. Transnet describes some 7300km of its 22,000km network as “non-core” lines - a collection of secondary routes and far-flung branch lines, many of which are effectively closed.

A trip through the rural areas paints a bleak picture. Grain silos across the country have lost their rail connections and entire lines have disappeared into the earth as nature takes over.

Many of these lines were built for political reasons to capture the rural vote in South Africa’s great rail building spree in the early part of the 20th century and were mostly uneconomic from the start. Others - particularly those in the country’s grain-growing regions - still retain their potential.

Transnet has long grappled with the question of what to do with its uneconomic branch lines. A 2010 proposal to concession a number of closed or non-core lines to private operators came to nothing, despite numerous qualified bidders submitting detailed proposals.

With its emphasis on fixing the general freight business, Transnet’s market demand strategy is a signal that the company intends to go after the single wagon-load traffic it has lost to the road-haulage market - much of it on underperforming branch lines whose fortunes could change if a bimodal service was on offer.

Meanwhile, RailRunner - which offers side-tipplers and trailers with sliding covers, along with its “Terminal Anywhere” solution - could change the prospects of those mining companies who do not have rail connections and whose lorries have ridden into the crosshairs of a government under pressure to get them off the country’s roads.