Versatile Africa

Innovative intermodal systems

With an eye for innovation and a goal to offer the most efficient and cost-effective intermodal supply chain services to the mining, shipping and transport industries, Versatile Africa has been in business since 1998 and over the years has garnered a reputation as a world-class specialist that offers individually designed and crafted, environmentally sensitive logistics solutions for road, rail and sea.

Based in South Africa, Versatile Africa is split into three subsidiaries – VersaRail, Versatile Container Handling and Versatainer – that together offer a unique one-stop shop solution for customers that need to transport a variety of materials via different modes of transportation.

“We’ve done a lot of business with the motor industry and even containerised fruit, but the bulk that we target is the mining industry; they are the biggest users,” says Tim Fleischer, managing director of Versatile Africa.


Versarail imports and sells, or provides managed services, using specialised shunting locomotives by Italian manufacturer Zephir. These locomotives are known for their highly effective “rubber on steel” rail and road technology and are, quite literally, sturdy-yet-lightweight vehicles with rubber tyres that can pull up to 6,000-tonne loads across South Africa’s railway terminals and exchange yards.

“Because they have rubber wheels, they have a far better adhesion factor on the rail,” says Fleischer. “What this means is that the locomotive, which is half the weight, can do the same work for less.”

This gives Versarail a unique competitive edge in the industry.

The Zephir locomotive has twice the traction of traditional shunters due to its wheels that combine a rubber tyre with a steel guide. Traditional shunting locomotives use steel wheels on steel rail lines, which provide less traction to shunt (i.e. push or pull) heavy loads. In order to increase the traction, the shunting locomotives themselves need to be heavier to provide more of a “downward force” to provide more traction. However, a heavier machine means more effort and fuel is required to operate it. In contrast, the Zephir shunting locomotive is especially built to be half the weight, which means it can reduce operational costs, such as for fuel and maintenance, by almost 50% while still executing the same amount of work.

And whether a client is looking to transport smaller loads with the Electric Range shunters – which are powered by traction batteries, meaning they can be used indoors because they produce zero emissions – or larger loads, with the Lok and Lokom range of green shunting locos, at the end of the day Versarail’s solutions are able to offer customers immense value for their money.

Versatile Container Handling

Having a firm grip on the rail side of things, the company also launched a container-handling subsidiary, aptly called Versatile Container Handling. Fleischer says the company imports, assembles and supports a unique range of container-handling equipment from New Zealand’s Steelbro, ranging from sidelifters to straddle carriers and rubber-tyred gantries.

“All of our divisions have a strong intermodal slant to them,” says Fleischer. For example, sidelifters, which are Self Loading Trailers, can make the link between the mine and rail line for projects that are far from a convenient route. If a client doesn’t have a rail near site, they can use a sidelifter to transport the full containers to the nearest rail; the sidelifters also tranfer the containers onto the train, eliminating the need for specialised equipment such as cranes and expensive infrastructure such as hard-top surfaces or loading ramps. These trucks can literally pick up and drop off containers in almost any environment, making it ideal for large and small business owners alike.

The straddle carriers and rubber-tyred gantries offer similar convenience for companies looking to transfer their containers in convenient and cost-effective ways.


All this leads to Versatile Africa’s third subsidiary, Versatainer, which is home to the company’s carefully designed and patented bottom-discharge container for bulk material handling.

This unique technology is a refreshing innovation in the logistics industry that has been in development since 2003. According to reports, this ISO-compliant bottom-discharge container was introduced to the African market in April 2012 and, to date, it has successfully been used to transport what equates to almost 1.45 million tonnes of bulk material a year from Swaziland to the Port of Maputo.

“The containers are manufactured in South Africa… can be carried on trains, trucks or ships, and can also be used as storage, allowing flat-bed rail wagons to become bulk wagons, creating immediate capacity,” said Fleischer in an interview with Mining Weekly.

The convenience of bottom-discharge technology has led Versatile Africa to develop a new ultra-high-speed rail-loading system, dubbed Rocket Rail Loader.

With this solution, the Rocket Rail loader will pre-load the wagon set before the train arrives and once the train has been shunted into place, the containers will simultaneously discharge the bulk material in minutes.

Furthermore, Fleischer says the advantages of the bottom-discharge containers don’t end there. These products are perfectly suited to intermodal usage once the containers get to a port, via either rail or truck. A crane can lift the containers to discharge the product onto a stockpile at the port, lift the container to discharge the material directly into a ship’s hold or load the containers onto a cellular vessel for export. These have helped clients to decrease loading time, product degradation and environmental risk.

It’s clear the company’s competitive edge is its capability to offer a perfectly compatible, intermodal supply chain solution, which is not only more convenient than many competitors in the market due to technologies such as the shunting locomotives, sidelifters and bottom-discharge containers, but offers significant savings while increasing turnaround time “from mine to end user.”

Fleischer says the fact that more and more people are looking for effective intermodal solutions makes exhibiting at the 16th annual Africa Transport and Infrastructure Show at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg a ‘no brainer’.

“The traditional rail industry is acknowledging there is a need for this; the time is now,” says Fleischer. “We’ve always been to rail shows purely as a rail locomotive supplier. But Africa Rail might be the place for us to showcase a complete intermodal solution.”

As for what the future holds, Fleischer says he wants to make sure “everything in our own backyard is developed”, ensuring the company is able to tap into all the opportunities the Southern African region offers – especially with the rising boom of mining projects, and especially considering the fact that Versatile Africa is uniquely equipped to service emerging mining players with its affordable and versatile solutions.

However, Fleischer believes the company’s innovations cannot be understated, and there are future plans to eventually expand into other countries where there’s a lot of bulk to transport, such as Australia.

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