China is keen to help build a Johannesburg to Durban high-speed train

Fuxing high speed trains operated by China Railway Corporation seen at the South Railway Station in Beijing. (Photo by Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Fuxing high speed trains operated by China Railway Corporation seen at the South Railway Station in Beijing. (Photo by Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

  • China says it is connecting with South Africa about a project for a high-speed rail link between Johannesburg and Durban.
  • The plan has been under serious government consideration since at least 2010.
  • A new feasibility study is looking at high speed trains that carry both passengers and freight.
  • Outside of politics, expectations that the project will get off the ground aren’t particularly high.
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China is actively talking to South Africa about a high-speed rail link between Johannesburg and Durban, its ambassador says – a plan that has been around for well over a decade, most of that time in cold storage, but re-emerged again last year.

Chinese investment in South Africa has created 400,000 local jobs, Chinese ambassador to SA Chen Xiaodong told a job fair last week, and 100 Chinese companies have committed to creating 20,000 more jobs over the next three years.

“China stands ready to work with South Africa to move China-South Africa ties forward towards a deeper level and broader scope,” he said. That is due to happen by way of everything from vocational training initiatives to cellphone giant Huawei’s plan to hire 450 people in SA. And, among the long list of things the countries will and may do together is to build a really fast train.

“We are also continuing to connect with South Africa on major projects, such as a Joburg-Durban high-speed railway,” said Chen.

That plan has a long and very fraught history, with the potential to have a tangible impact on South Africa’s credit rating.

The idea of a high-speed rail link was floated by then transport minister Sibusiso Ndebele in 2010, who said at the time that details were being “finalised” and that he would ask for a formal feasibility study in the same financial year.

Funding – for what could be the biggest ever investment in a single transport project in South Africa, dwarfing the likes of the Gautrain – would be a stumbling block, everyone agreed, but various Chinese companies appeared ready to provide vendor and project finance.

Since then, the project has popped up in speeches on occasion, often linked to “smart cities” initiatives or in the context of new infrastructure investment.

In August, transport minister Fikile Mbalula said a feasibility study on such a high-speed rail link “will cater for passengers but also for freight” because of the impact freight transport has on roads.

Enthusiasm for the project has come almost exclusively from the political sphere, with few outside that sphere believing it is either practical or likely to ever be built.

In November, FitchSolutions declared its ongoing “negative view” on the high-speed rail project.

“We do not expect this project to be built within the long term, due to its high costs, the lack of progress on the project that has been in the pipeline for over a decade, the government’s constrained fiscal capacity for financing such a project, and likely limited private sector interest in providing alternative funding,” it said.