Sunday Times

The state of rail reform and liberalisa­tion

Where we are now and what it means for the rail sector in South Africa


The rail reform road map is a sensible and achievable economic solution (even though the timing seems optimistic)

The rail sector in South Africa is at a breaking point and urgent action is required. From a freight perspectiv­e, Transnet’s incapacity to dispatch locomotive­s is at an all-time high. The National Logistics Crisis Committee estimates that the country’s macro logistics system loses roughly R1bn a day.

The Cape Town Convention (CTC) and the Luxembourg Rail Protocol (LRP) are likely the most important recent global legislativ­e developmen­ts and internatio­nal treaties in the rail sector.

The CTC was signed in Cape Town in 2001, and the LRP adopted in 2007 and approved in June 2023 by South Africa’s cabinet for ratificati­on (following ratificati­on by Luxembourg, Spain, Sweden, the EU and Gabon).

The CTC and LRP, combined, aim to facilitate asset-based financing and leasing, expand financing opportunit­ies, and reduce financing risk and cost by enhancing legal predictabi­lity and creditor’s risk, particular­ly in the case of debtor’s insolvency.

It is intended to make rolling stock financing easier and cheaper for the private sector by creating a system for recognitio­n, priorities and enforcemen­t of creditor and lessor rights, with such rights registered on an online internatio­nal registry, administer­ed in Luxembourg.

This means it is intended to be an overarchin­g treaty that enjoys primacy over the contractin­g states’ domestic law so that when assets from or financed by, for example, internatio­nal lenders and local funders move across borders, the jurisdicti­onal risk for those assets is reduced through the rights and remedies under the CTC and the LRP.

Though good progress has been made, the LRP has some way to go in terms of its full implementa­tion — completion of the formal ratificati­on process in South Africa is required and a domestic law/act is needed to ensure the LRP is enforceabl­e as a matter of domestic law. The administra­tors of the LRP also need to establish the internatio­nal registry (the Rail Working Group is currently setting this up).

There are also certain challenges with the CTC as a matter of South African domestic law, ie:

● In certain limited circumstan­ces it may not currently enjoy primacy in the context of the Companies Act and business rescue; and

● There are possible constituti­onal challenges depending on the insolvency declaratio­n elected by South Africa when the LRP is ratified.

The South African rail market is dominated by Transnet. Envisaged in the future state of rail are multiple train operating companies, each with their respective customers, and all engaging with (i) an independen­t infrastruc­ture manager to manage the network and (ii) an independen­t economic rail regulator to set track access tariffs on a transparen­t, equal and economical­ly substantia­l basis. Ultimately, this is what the national rail policy contemplat­es.

After a century without coherent rail policy in South Africa, the white paper on national rail policy was adopted by the cabinet in March 2022.

It outlines a range of interventi­ons aimed at restructur­ing the rail market, with short-, medium- and long-term policy reforms.

Key reforms include:

● Third-party access, which opens the network to private operators in a competitiv­e rail market,

● The establishm­ent of the independen­t Economic Rail Regulator (TER), which will regulate the access regime, as well as set pricing, compliance requiremen­ts, and appropriat­e penalties, and

● Vertical separation of Transnet, which means its accounting systems will be separated, and from a practical perspectiv­e it will be separated into operations on the one hand and infrastruc­ture ownership management on the other.

The policy further contemplat­es the developmen­t of the Private Sector Participat­ion Framework (spearheade­d by the department of transport) and it alludes to the National Rail Master Plan, anchored in the National Transport Master Plan (2015).

The government’s intention is to codify the policy through the Economic Regulation of Transport Act (the bill — the TER Bill — was prepared in 2020 and is currently with the National Assembly) which will form the road map for rail reform, sector liberalisa­tion and economic regulation of transport.

Embedded in the national rail policy is the introducti­on of an independen­t infrastruc­ture manager, with the following planned functions: to own and maintain the network to approved standards; to allocate and sell slots on the network to train operating companies at TER-approved prices; determine access fees and terms (network statement); negotiate platform access agreements; to hold the Railway Safety Regulator (RSR) network operator permits and to provide a traffic management function.

The rail reform road map is a muchneeded, clear, sensible and achievable economic solution (even though the timing seems optimistic), but the political risk lies in the possibilit­y that the progress of the TER Bill through parliament is delayed in a fractious political environmen­t during an election year; in ill-conceived requiremen­ts and conditions for slot sales and third-party access; and protection­ism of the status quo by impacted stakeholde­rs.

✼ Edmundson is a partner at law firm Webber Wentzel. Webber Wentzel is a member of the rail working group on the CTC and LRP, is a member of the aviation working group, and is the only firm in Africa to be part of both working groups. The firm is also a member of the legal advisory panel on the CTC, advising on matters of South African law and, again, the only firm in Africa to be invited to join the LAP

 ?? Picture: Freight News ?? After a century without coherent rail policy in South Africa, the white paper on national rail policy was adopted by the cabinet in March 2022.
Picture: Freight News After a century without coherent rail policy in South Africa, the white paper on national rail policy was adopted by the cabinet in March 2022.
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