Ramaphosa’s dream of high-speed trains for South Africa is still coming – 5 years later

 ·8 Feb 2024

President Cyril Ramaphosa says that his promise of high-speed trains for South Africa is still making its way to reality – with the Joburg-Durban being the first point of focus.

The president’s long-held ambitions for a high-speed rail (HSR) network connecting cities got a brief mention in his 2024 State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Thursday evening (8 February), updating the nation on its progress.

“In November last year, Cabinet approved a framework for high-speed rail, focusing initially on the Johannesburg to Durban corridor,” the president said.

Cabinet approved the framework on 1 November 2023, but little detail was given aside from naming the Durban-Joburg corridor as the priority route, which would move on to feasibility studies.

“Cabinet approved the High-Speed Rail Development Framework and the financial implications for implementation will be discussed between the Ministers of Transport and Finance,” government said at the time.

“Cabinet approved the prioritisation of the Johannesburg to Durban corridor for a detailed feasibility study, and the Johannesburg-Polokwane to Musina, and the Johannesburg to Mbombela will be put to the market.”

On the topic of rail, Cabinet also adopted the Freight Logistics Roadmap in December 2023, which includes a broad plan to implement the National Rail Policy.

The National Rail Policy is the whitepaper that contains specific mention of High Speed Rail (HSR), which was adopted by cabinet in March 2022.

The HSR framework within the policy had not received particular mention until a few months ago.

In June 2023, the Department of Transport noted that the framework was still being developed, with various criteria and specific corridors needing to be identified.

Further, the department said that feasibility studies still needed to be conducted on prioritised HSR corridors – contingent on approvals and funding being secured.

Off the rails

Ramaphosa’s fixation on high-speed trains dates back to his 2019 SONA, where he said he dreams of South African cities filled with skyscrapers and connected by bullet trains.

“We should imagine a country where bullet trains pass through Johannesburg as they travel from here to Musina, and they stop in Buffalo City on their way from Ethekwini back here.”

“Has the time not arrived to build a new smart city founded on the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution? I would like to invite South Africans to begin imagining this prospect,” Ramaphosa said at the time.

However, contrary to the president’s lofty ambitions, South Africa’s rail networks have gone in the opposite direction, being virtually unusable for passenger transport and heavily crippled for heavy haul and freight.

The railway lines themselves have been besieged by criminals and stripped bare. The rail logistics crisis has become a disaster almost on par with the Eskom power crisis, leading to billions of rands of lost revenue and investment.

The Freight Logistics Roadmap approved at the end of 2023 aims primarily to stabilise and improve the operational performance of Transnet’s freight rail network – with the NRP and HSR likely falling down the list of priorities.

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