Ceres Fruit Train

Reporting by Paul Ash

A joint venture between Transnet Freight Rail and tourist-freight train operator Ceres Rail Company (CRC) - is breathing new life into a branch line many thought had closed for good.

Carol-ann Matseba stands at a level crossing in the farming town of Ceres. The usually quiet streets are choked with cars and Matseba and her four-man team of “bodies” — men with red flags — have their hands full persuading people that the pair of diesel locomotives bearing down on the crossing is not an apparition. “Close on your side,” she shouts across the tracks, stepping out of the way of a bakkie whose driver has left it to the last second to brake.

Airhorns blaring, the locomotives trundle over the road and Matseba and her team jump into their car and race down Michell’s Pass to the next crossing.

Drivers might be forgiven for thinking trains have long gone from Ceres. The 26km branch from Wolseley on the Cape main line lay moribund for nearly a decade until the Ceres Rail Company (CRC) was formed with the hope of running tourist trains along the line.

Ceres Fruit Train

A decade later, CRC has, with the blessing of Transnet, added freight trains to the mix as the company continues to persuade fruit growers to switch from road to rail.

Not all the car drivers in town seem to know — or care — that trains are running again, however.

“There are four major level crossings,” said Matseba, adding that due to the high-risk rating of each crossing CRC is required to have people controlling traffic at each.

Protecting the level crossings was just one of the hurdles facing CRC when it proposed to take over the line nearly a decade ago. Before joining CRC as a consultant in 2021, Daleen Endley had worked for TFR where she had been tasked with re-opening the branch.

“The line was closed for a very, very long time,” she said. “My job as part of the marketing team that was put together to re-open the line was to get freight business,” she said.

That meant meeting with potential customers who operate in the fertile Ceres valley as well as others with rail connections anywhere along the branch and the mainline to Cape Town.

The work on making the line safe for traffic fell to Matseba who was also then employed at TFR.

After being closed for more than a decade, there was plenty of work to be done. The track was overgrown in places while other sections had been damaged by rockfalls and flooding.

Some 3km of the route needed to be replaced, said Matseba.

Transnet — which has been an enthusiastic supporter of the project — spent an estimated R26 million on repairs.

The first trains ran in 2015, using locomotives, wagons and crews supplied by TFR and private logistics company DSV managing the transport and loading of containers at the terminal in Ceres. It was hard work from the beginning, said Endley.

Ceres Fruit Train
Carol-ann Matseba stands at a level crossing in the farming town of Ceres.

“We were hands-on, working in the packhouse, seeing how they packed and helping with the loading,” she said.

Everything was running smoothly when the pandemic hit, bringing the operation to a dead stop.

Meanwhile, Endley — who had left TFR in 2017 — was consulting to Western Cape companies looking for rail solutions. In early 2021, with a post-pandemic recovery looking more certain, CRC contracted her and Matseba to do consulting work to get the fruit service running again.

In March 2021, the fruit trains began running once more.

Since then Endley has been working on finding more business for the operation. Her biggest challenge is trying to persuade companies in Ceres to use rail.

“It means trying to change mindsets,” she said, noting that rail is the cheaper option for shippers.

“We know what the rates are for road transport, she said.

Getting companies’ buy-in and trust is tough, she admitted, as shippers were reluctant to do things differently.

Currently, the biggest local customers using rail to transport their products are Ceres Fruit Processors and Dutoit Fruit, part of the sprawling Dutoit Agri group.

There has been enough traffic to run one train a week, on average, with each train comprising up to 28 flatcars loaded with a single 12m container.

Trains are usually a combination of refrigerated containers for fruit and GP (general purpose) containers to carry such processed products as fruit concentrate.

One positive spin-off was fewer trucks using the tricky Michell’s Pass which lies between Ceres and Wolseley.

“Almost every week a truck loses its load on that pass,” Endley said, adding that on at least one occasion a container from a runaway truck had ended up blocking the railway itself, forcing CRC to suspend the train service that week while the line was cleared.

Despite those challenges, the service has been running smoothly with not a single load missing its ship.

“We have never missed a vessel,” she said.

On one occasion, good communication between Transnet, the port and the shipping line over a late-running train allowed the operator to delay its vessel’s departure from Cape Town.

“They kept the vessel back for the Ceres train to come in.”

Ceres Fruit Train

Endley said CRC has enjoyed a strong relationship with Transnet which remained “very supportive” of the service.

CRC hoped to run loaded trains in both directions on the line which in turn would impact the rates currently being charged by Transnet.

This would involve using containers to transport imports to Ceres, cleaning the containers at the terminal and then reloading them with fruit or fruit concentrate bound for the port, which in turn would help keep the logistics costs as low as possible.

There were also plans to build a new depot in Ceres to take advantage of the changes in how the shipping lines do business.

Until now traffic has been based on a merchant haulage system in which the customer decides the transport mode. That is changing, however, as shipping lines move to so-called carrier haulage where the shipping lines determine the landslide transport mode.

“That’s good for the customer because it means the risk moves to the shipping line rather than the exporter,” said Endley, noting that the recent season had been hampered by a shortage of reefer containers.

A carrier-haul system would mean it was up to the shipping line to ensure that exporters had access to equipment and that there would be space on the vessels.

In the longer term, CRC was also considering buying or leasing its own locomotives to haul the trains, insulating the company from locomotive shortages at TFR, said CEO Simon Beckett.

“There are three ways to go,” said Beckett. “Stay as we are with Transnet hauling the trains; run the branch line with TFR using its own locos on the main line; or run our trains all the way to the harbour.”

Enquiries with potential locomotive suppliers were underway, he told Railways Africa.

At a pinch, CRC could use its own fleet of steam locomotives, normally deployed on its tourist trains to Ceres and Elgin, to operate freight trains on the branch line, said Endley.

Those locomotives were limited to hauling 10 flatcars each, however.

Currently, no refrigerated containers were being hauled as the citrus season wound down but there was still strong demand for GP boxes, she said.

While trucks remained CRC’s biggest competitors, the 2022 season had been marked by chronic shortages of reefer containers and space on vessels, forcing some exporters to transport their product to Port Elizabeth where shipping space was available.

Matseba also has to guarantee TFR a minimum of 10 wagons for trains to run. This week, however, the train was cancelled as there were only enough GP containers for seven wagons.

While some containers could hold for the next train, others would likely be transported by road.

“Some will go by road because they have deadlines, others can keep to next week,” said Matseba. “It’s all vessel dependent.”

Beckett, meanwhile, was involved was new potential shippers along the route. It was critical that CRC not only persuades potential customers in the Ceres valley to switch from road to rail but also to find backhaul traffic which would help lower rates and guarantee traffic out of the fruit season.

Despite this season’s problems as exporters struggled to find enough refrigeration containers and get space on ships, Beckett remained confident that CRC’s business would expand.

“People are beginning to understand the efficiency that rail offers over trucks,” he said.

Related News Articles