FESARTA Alert: Looming Crisis in Regional Road Transport of Containers

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Friday, 13th October 2017

The world is changing, as it always has, and transport is the “tail on the dog” as a customer dependent industry. The effect of the changes is to create challenges presented by customer demands but at the same time to provide opportunities for transport innovation to meet the continually changing shape of the service package required by supply chain logistics.

In South African ports, bigger ships have led to very expensive deepening and widening of entrance channels, rebuilding berths to provide more draught and installation of cranes with extended reach and higher lift capacities. This is necessary as container weights increase and the shift to high cube containers continues. In South Africa, wharf side development is not yet being accompanied by more space for container storage, bulk depots, more efficient handling systems and provision of marshalling and transfer yards; the lack of landside expansion capacity is having negative impacts on efficiency and costs.

In road haulage there is continual innovation in vehicle and trailer design and capacities, international communications with drivers, scheduling systems, on-board recording and data based monitoring are the tools of professionalism. The capabilities of modern vehicles were not even imagined 20 years ago, with interlinks, super links, ceramics, ABS braking, steel radial tyres, telematics and PBS being routine current fare. Vehicle dimensions and specifications have changed radically to match demand. The introduction of containerisation in the 1970s made it essential to increase legal vehicle height from 4.1 to 4.3 metres; the advent of the High Cube container is the “new norm” for 12 metre boxes in world shipping and they require a legal height of 4.6 metres (same as double decker bus”). Based on current volumes there will be approximately 900,000 to 1 million HC box movements on road in RSA in 2017, and the proportion of 12 metre, HC containers will continue to increase, driven by international trade.


The relatively low volumes of HC containers in the total road transport market makes it impractical to operate “un-standard “vehicles, so that transport of high cube containers is normally done throughout the region with flat deck trailers and rigids which also carry other cargo. Their versatility is enhanced by the fact that most handling facilities are built to suit the “normal” 1.5 metre deck height. Road transport of HC containers is currently illegal on South African roads but is permitted under a prosecution “moratorium” issued by the Department of Transport, until January 2019. From the FESARTA regional perspective, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania, have already changed their legal height limits to accommodate the inevitable, and barring vehicles from neighbouring states will contravene the SADC Protocol on Transport and be recorded as a Non-Tariff barrier (NTB). The Road Freight Strategy endorsed by RSA Cabinet in 2017 recommends engagement with the SADC–Tripartite  TTTFP programme to facilitate harmonisation of vehicle regulations to improve trade on regional corridors.

There is no credible evidence after 10 years of safe transport of HCs all over the region, to support the resistance to changing legal height. Neither the insurers, the shipping lines as owners, or the road authorities have any records of damage caused by the dimensions of HC containers. Repeated submissions to the authorities have not resulted in further response or dialogue, which means that the road logistics of HC containers may become illegal after 2018. This makes several sectors very vulnerable, including the motor industry, fruit producers, and import-exporters on regional corridors, with a very short window to revise their logistics systems. For maritime movements there are capacity limitations on the use of other regional ports to avoid South Africa, although Luanda, Walvis Bay, Beira, Nacala and Dar es Salaam all have terminal expansions
planned or in progress. 

The current impasse in changing road freight regulations to permit legal transport of High Cube containers is part of the legislative archaism which is responsible for much of the unenforceable regulation hanging over road freight transport in the region. The casual disregard for the practical and economic impacts on industry will very likely to result in a total crisis when the moratorium is lifted and a large proportion of the road freight industry opts to not transport HC boxes. The resulting chaos in South African ports, ocean shipping and the disruptions to industry will cause added damage to the fragile Regional economic situation.

The Deputy Minister of Transport made a statement at the CBRTA Indaba on 10 th October that that “regulation” (which is to say, restriction or additional cost) of cross-border transport is a propeller (not an obstacle) to regional trade. FESARTA will continue to request that the “inconsistent and flippant regulatory practices” where “authorities change rules without due process and consultation” which she also mentioned, can be resolved to end the looming crisis with container transport.

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