Sipho Mabena

By Sipho Mabena

Premium Journalist

How collapse of SA’s rail system unleashed deadly trucks on our roads

The blame for a spike in horrific accidents involving trucks can be laid squarely at the door of those who allowed the collapse of SA's rail infrastructure.

The carnage and destruction wreaked by trucks on South Africa’s roads has been squarely blamed on the rapidly crumbling rail infrastructure that has sparked a hike in road freight payload and ultimately more trucks on the roads.

The increase in road freight and trucks also mean roads not designed to carry that amount of heavy vehicle traffic are not coping, causing damage to the surface of the road and endangering other road users.

Four people were killed when their vehicle was dragged underneath a trailer of a truck in a horrific accident that left 10 people injured and involved several vehicles near the Mariannhill Toll Plaza on Tuesday morning.

Dashboard camera footage shows how the truck failed to stop before crashing into several vehicles while in the fast lane, with the Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC) saying the crash was allegedly due to brake failure. 

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In September, the lives of 18 children, aged between five and 12, and two adults, were cut short when a truck veered into the oncoming lane and before colliding with their vehicle, dragging it for about 1.2km. Eight of the children died at the scene.

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In another incident, six people, including four pedestrians, died when a truck ploughed into five vehicles in Mokopane, Limpopo, in December 2020.

The six deceased also included the driver of the truck and a passenger, who were burnt beyond recognition.

Deadly weight

This is but few in the long list of such horrific accidents involving trucks, with some frustrated communities resorting to taking matters into their own hands and blocking the trucks from driving through their neighbourhoods.

In May, the Beefmaster Group lamented the significant spike in road damage due to increased trucks, as companies were unable to rely on the country’s ailing railway network to transport goods.

Roelie van Reenen, the Group’s supply chain executive, said this was a concerning trend impacting towns and agricultural communities.

A truck drives on the N1 highway in Midrand, 2 November 2022. Picture: Neil McCartney / The Citizen
A truck drives on the N1 highway in Midrand, 2 November 2022. Picture: Neil McCartney / The Citizen

“We have seen first-hand how the increase in tipper trucks transporting commodities to ports is causing destruction of our road infrastructure,” he said.

Van Reenen said he regularly uses the N12 between Christiana and Kimberley, saying he was not convinced that the road will be able to cope with the increased traffic for much longer.

From rail to road

While there has been steady increase in overall land freight payload, rail freight has been in sharp decline; sparking a significant spike in the freight moved on the roads in 2022 compared to 2017.

According to Statistics SA’s Land Transport Surveys, in July 2017, 57 620 000 tons of freight was carried by the rail infrastructure, but this has declined to 39 853 000 tons by August 2022.

The road freight was 179 056 000 tons in July 2017 and, due to the collapse of rail infrastructure, this has shot up to 218 111 000 tons in August 2022.

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According to the Ctrack Freight Transport Index 2021, rail freight continues to lose market share, with rail freight volumes reaching 177 points down on a year ago.

On the contrary road freight, which is now the biggest sector of the index has reached an all-time high of 119,7. 

Data from the national administration traffic information system (NaTIS) shows that in October 2017, there were 372 573-trucks (Heavy load vehicles GVM > 3500kg) and 192 219 (Heavy load trailers GVM > 3500kg) registered.

By August 2022, the number of trucks registered on the system had increased to 395 273 and that of heavy load trailers registered had increased to 227 424.


Civil activist and head of civil action organisation, Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) Wayne Duvenage said the situation was sad and had a ripple effect on the economy, costs of road maintenance, and safety.

“The demise of [rail] has made [SA] very uncompetitive, has pushed up the cost of logistics extremely high. And again, you got to ask yourself, what is government doing about it? How are they going to fix it? The longer you leave it, the more costly it comes to fix?” he asked.

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Duvenage said during his time at car rental giant Avis, they used to move their fleet by rail to balance their fleets and maximise the utilisation of vehicles, but this ended in 2005, when the rail service and infrastructure started deteriorating.

He said it was not surprising that more companies were doing the same, resulting in the growth of the logistics fleet companies, as companies move away from government managed infrastructure.

Duvenage said trucks are also using alternative routes to avoid steep toll fees and damaging roads that broke provinces were unable to fix and maintain.

“When you look at regional roads, how badly maintained they are and suddenly you see accidents happening and destruction of roads and the costs. Also the localised effect because passengers have also moved from rail to road, getting into taxis that are not road worthy,” he added.

The transport department is yet to respond to questions on how they plan to deal with the situation, which were sent to them on Wednesday.

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