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A new train service between South Africa’s north-east growing region and Cape Town, on the south-west coast, looks set to give the country’s citrus logistics industry a welcome boost.

Delegates at Cool Logistics Africa heard last week that from mid-May a weekly fruit train will run between Tzaneen, north-east of Pretoria, to Cape Town.

The route bypasses the congested south-east port of Durban and slashes days from the overall transit time to Europe.

The service, to be operated by the state-owned railway company, Transnet, is a joint enterprise between Dole SA, Unifrutti and Zest.

Citrus fruit forms the bulk of shipments from South Africa between May and September, after which Spanish produce begins to fill European supermarket shelves – although a cloud hangs over the 2014 South African citrus season.

A recent EU report on citrus blackspot in the country could lead to the extension into 2014 of a late-2013 European ban on South African citrus.

Shippers and logistics providers believe, however, that EU decision-makers will not want to embrace measures so draconian that European retailers could run out of citrus stock during the northern hemisphere summer.

The new rail service certainly points to optimism at the South African end of the trade, and represents a significant reduction in transit time to Europe.

Excluding loading and yard times, the rail transit time will be 44 hours, as revealed at Cool Logistics Africa last week by Wiseman Zazi Madinane from Transnet Freight Rail.

Ships en route to Europe, meanwhile, tend to start in Durban with stopovers in Coegha and Port Elizabeth before calling at Cape Town. The sailing time from Durban to Europe is 23 days, whereas cargo loaded at Cape Town takes only 18 days to reach northern markets.

Andy Connell of Dole South Africa said there were initial difficulties convincing Transnet to re-introduce a perishable rail connection to Cape Town. Established fruit train services to Durban will also continue.

The 1,650km Cape Town service, Capcor, will be more expensive than the 650km Natcor route to Durban, but Transnet said this was less to do with the longer physical distance and more to do with operational challenges and economics.

The route down to Durban involves a gentle slope, whereas the route to Cape Town requires several locomotive changes and involves many more gradient changes, which add cost.  In addition, Transnet is likely to deploy its newest diesel-electric locomotives on the oversubscribed Durban route.

The higher routing cost via Cape Town will therefore need to be absorbed by users, hence the need for Dole to team up with as many shippers as possible.

Mr Connell explained that shipping companies would derive significant positioning advantages from the new intermodal connection at Cape Town, especially given that port congestion in Durban was only likely to increase as quayside construction work got under way.

Two shipping lines, Maersk and MSC, are believed by industry insiders to have taken a positive view of the new Cape Town train.