By Quinton de Villiers
The South African road-transport sector has long been a point of discussion for authorities and policymakers as they ponder quicker and more cost-effective ways of decongesting the country’s congested road networks.
Fiery rhetoric often quickly follows a protracted road closure on the main road corridors as a result of an unfortunate incident involving trucks. This is then compounded by the very poor publicity the entire industry receives when the mainstream media tars all road-freight operators with the same brush. The widespread coverage seldom reflects the importance of the sector in the larger transport industry, which employs 126 043 workers in South Africa and contributes about two per cent to the gross-domestic product.
As the founder and managing director of a reputable transport and logistics operation, I remain perplexed by one of the solutions being mooted by government to deter such incidences – namely the very contentious proposed ban on the operating hours of trucks during peak hours.
Certainly, any reputable participant in the road-freight sector would agree that these occurrences are unacceptable and should not occur, but the solution being proposed will not solve the larger underlying problem in the industry.
Many reputable participants in the larger South African road-freight fraternity invest heavily into ensuring that they comply with legislation – even exceeding what is considered to be the norm in the industry.
Bridgewater Logistics, for example, continues to invest heavily into its operations to stay abreast of the sophisticated transport and logistics requirements of our clients. This encompasses our infrastructure, trucks and drivers to not only enhance productivity and capability levels, but to also boost our robust internal safety policies and protocols.
We also take pride in the stellar efforts of our long-standing partners who have undergone extensive due diligence to ensure they are in line with our own high standards. They too take pride in their well-maintained trucks and highly-skilled drivers.
To the contrary, there are also an increasing number of unscrupulous operators entering the industry. Spending the bare minimum on operating costs in an attempt to provide a vastly-reduced rate for their services, they are running rough-shod over road legislation and, in so doing, have brought the entire industry into disrepute.
Their rates adequately reflect the very limited services that they offer so many businesses that still fall prey to their tactics. Certainly, the high failure rate of so many of these companies at the expense of their clients mirrors the many flaws in their business plans. Do their rates truly consider the costs involved in operating a high-quality transport and logistics company?
The main road transport expenses are fuel, driver’s wages, maintenance and repair, depreciation, cost of capital, insurance, tyres, toll fees and licences.
In 2015, fuel cost the road transport sector about R80-billion and driver’s wages R30-billion, while third-party logistics providers and internal transport divisions forked out R30-billion, alone, for maintenance and repair. These sums cited by a study undertaken by the University of Stellenbosch provide some indication of the extent of the cost inputs involved in offering a professional transport and logistics service.
Bridgewater Logistics welcomes competition as this only forces us to improve or refine our operations to remain a leader, but it has to be on a fair and level playing field that promotes excellence in the industry. We cannot condone practices that compromise road safety, or the optimal operation of our road assets due to irrational and short-sighted cost-cutting exercises.
I would argue that a sound starting point to prevent incidences on our road network would be greater involvement by the authorities in helping the industry retain extremely high standards. Greater law enforcement and harsher penalties for flouting legislative requirements would send out a strong and clear message, while raising the barriers to entry to safeguard this engine of the economy.
We, therefore, welcome government’s Road Freight Strategy, which recommends, among others, “a more enhanced efficient enforcement” national system to promote road safety, as well as improved protection of road infrastructure. However, the challenge is to ensure that this initiative is fully implemented and turned into best-practice, as opposed to becoming a theory that has not been put into practice.
At the same time, I need to highlight the importance of our industry as the dominant over-land mode of transport in South Africa. A proposed ban would, therefore, have far-reaching and dire consequences on the economy.
The country boasts the 10th-largest road network in the world, comprising 158 124 km of paved road, 459 957 km of gravel road and 131 919 km of un-proclaimed gravel road.
As the South African National Road Agency’s statistics indicates, this amounts to almost 750 000 km of road network. This is not to mention the fact that our highways are comparable to global standards.
While there are attempts at correcting this reliance on road, it will take a long time. Our rail infrastructure is mainly weighted towards serving the mineral and extractive sectors, with many of the branch lines having fallen into disrepair. There are even instances where competent road haulers are competing against rail by also transporting coal to our power stations and timber to sawmills, as well as other minerals and resources to the country’s ports.
Banning trucks on our roads at any time would also be an onerous burden for government which would have to establish the necessary infrastructure where trucks could be corralled and then released on the road after the restriction. The fact that they will all have to be released simultaneously to avoid further disrupting the economy is bound to lead to further bottlenecks on the corridors and built-up areas.
Bridgewater Logistics joins government and its peers in the industry in finding a workable solution, but stands strong in its view that banning operating hours for trucks is simply not a viable or long-term solution!
Quinton de Villiers is the founder and managing director of Bridgewater Logistics with a long and impressive track-record in African logistics and security. Follow Quinton at #InTheFastLane for more insights and expert commentary on African transport and logistics.