On the eve of the ninth session of United Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD IX) in Midrand (27 April - 11 May), UNCTAD and the Systems Branch of SPOORNET (South African Railways), have reached a strategic understanding in March 1996 to collaborate in the development and installation of an integrated cargo tracking system in the nine railways sharing a common network in the Southern African sub-region. UNCTAD will ensure this collaboration through the railway module of its Advance Cargo Information System (ACIS) - called RailTracker.
ACIS is a computer-based information system, tracking transport equipment and cargo which has been developed by UNCTAD. It comprises standard tracking modules specific to all surface modes and interfaces - ports, railways, roads and lakes which are customised to a country´s needs. These are connected together by a Backbone Information System (BIS) which will also connect each country in the sub-region thus enhancing regional integration. It has the added advantage of providing transport operators and ancillaries with reliable, useful and immediate data on transport operations, giving the whereabouts of goods, and transport equipment; this enables transport operators to improve day to day management and decision making.
As a result, ACIS produces regular statistics and performance indicators which at the operator level enables management to remedy deficiencies and at national and sub-regional levels provides data for macro-economic planning. It is designed to change the transportation culture in the beneficiary countries by promoting business partnerships between those involved with cargo transits, be they operators or clients, both at the national and international level. As such the public and private sectors will be brought together with clients to assess the reasons for delay and lack of quality in the transportation of consignments.
ACIS is a necessary "enabler" to provide information on the progress of consignments so that market pressures can be applied to identify and rectify the causes for delay and other problems. An important component of the ACIS concept is its inherent ability to enhance the process of regional integration. By providing transport operators and other economic actors in the region with timely, accurate and instant information, ACIS is able to help decision makers to harmonise policies of the beneficiary countries.
Already, with financial resources made available by the European Commission UNCTAD is installing the System in six Eastern African countries, members of the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). It is also installing the system in a number of ex-Soviet Republics in Central Asia with the framework of the EEC TACIS programme. The German and French Governments are also funding the development of the System in various forms in some other parts of Africa and Asia. A number of Central and South American railway and port authorities have indicated strong interest in ACIS. Discussions are also very much advanced with a potential donor for the installation of the System in the Central African region (Union Douanière des Etats d´Afrique Centrale, UDEAC) and West Africa (The Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS).
Collaboration between UNCTAD and SPOORNET arose from the need for an integrated railway tracking system throughout the interconnected networks of Southern and Eastern Africa and was proposed by Morrison Knudsen Corporation in a report commissioned by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The consultants recommended that given the versatility of ACIS "it be retained as the platform for the local rolling stock information systems so equipped in the Southern African region"..... and opined that "ACIS is a good, capable system and we support its further development in the context of this project". Since the publication of the report the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) which had hitherto been outside the constellation of ACIS in the Southern African region has indicated its preference for ACIS over other systems for the management of its operations.
Under the collaboration arrangement between UNCTAD and SPOORNET, ACIS and SPRINT will gradually interface at different levels. Each system will make appropriate enhancements so as to be able to fulfill its role as a component of a regional Rolling Stock Information System. The combined system will generate live operational information on cargo and rolling stock, statistics, performance indicators and historical analyses on all these railways.
The latest feature that UNCTAD ACIS RailTracker system can now offer and which will be demonstrated during UNCTAD IX is a possibility for railway customers such as shippers´ and forwarders to dial into some African networks, from abroad, to interrogate a RailTracker database in Eastern Africa as to where their cargo is on that network. This can be seen as a major technological breakthrough for the transport sector in Africa.