ON TRACK: A feasibility study on the Ermelo-Swaziland rail line is said to be nearing completion.SUNDAY TIMES

A PLAN to build 165km of rail between Ermelo in Mpumalanga and Phuzumayo in eastern Swaziland, to increase coal exports and freight-exporting capacity to the ports of Richards Bay and Maputo, may take four to five years before it becomes a reality.

Transnet Freight Rail is partnering with Swaziland Rail in the rail-link development.

Stephenson Ngubane, Swaziland Railway's director for operations and marketing, said a feasibility study on the rail project was nearing completion, with technical aspects such as specific routing still outstanding.

Siyabonga Gama, the CEO of state-owned Transnet Freight Rail, said yesterday that an environmental impact assessment would be undertaken once a feasibility study was completed.

Connecting Ermelo with Phuzumayo, which has a rail link to Maputo, opens up possibilities for Swaziland Railway to interface with Mozambican rail and port company CFM, Mr Gama said.

Earlier this year Mr Gama estimated that as much as 15-million tons of general freight that is transported on Transnet's coal export line each year, could be moved to this new line.

The shift in general freight would create additional capacity for coal exporters, which have complained for years about Transnet's inability to match coal export output and the capacity of Richards Bay Coal Terminal.

Transnet's coal export line has a capacity of 68-million tons a year and Richards Bay Coal Terminal 91-million tons a year.

The line would be used to move general freight and "some minerals", Mr Ngubane said.

He said funding for the project would run into billions of rand.

The exact cost of the project would be known only once decisions were made on matters such as whether to tunnel through mountainous areas, or to seek out a contour route that followed water through the mountainous regions, he said. A mix of funding from governments and development financiers would be sought, Mr Ngubane said.

"We want affordable funds, it will be a consortium of funders," he said.

An environmental impact study may take between six months and 18 months, Mr Gama said, but not because of lack of urgency. "The desire is there, we want to do it tomorrow."

Construction is expected to take only three to four years, according to Mr Ngubane.

The project was a demonstration of how two countries could co-operate on investing in new rail projects, Mr Gama said.

In two weeks' time the Southern African Railways Association, which is made up of 23 rail operators in the Southern African Development Community (Sadc), will host a conference to bring rail operators and investors together to promote investment in rail and to integrate rail-based transport systems in the region.

Its president, Titus Haimbili, said yesterday that massive investment was needed in the region to build new rail projects and to rehabilitate and maintain existing infrastructure.

The association's executive director, Bernard Dzawanda, said Sadc was "working on a regional master plan that will spell out" what investments are needed and in which countries.

The Sadc plan would form part of the inputs into a greater regional plan for the continent that will identify investment opportunities in the sector, Mr Dzawanda said.

The Sadc study was expected to be completed over the next 10 months, he said.