Private security has 'huge' success on Transnet's coal line

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Privately funded security on Transnet’s coal rail line has yielded "huge" successes, spurring miners on to scale up efforts to clamp down on cable thieves and vandals.

At a pre-close presentation hosted by Exxaro Resources, one of South Africa’s largest coal producers and exporters of coal, the company said the industry had responded to crippling security challenges on the Transnet rail line by contracting with service providers to augment existing security services along the line.

"We've seen huge success in the areas where we have deployed this additional drone teams and tactical reaction teams on the ground," said Sakkie Swanepoel, Exxaro’s group manager of marketing said on Thursday.

"Transnet Freight Rail can confirm that, since the first week of November when we began to collaborate with our coal customers on security, we have witnessed a 80% reduction in the length of cable stolen on the North Corridor," the rail operator said in a written response to Fin24. "While there is some reduction in parts, the number of incidents is still fluctuating week-on-week. We will have a more meaningful picture in a few weeks’ time." 

Another major coal producer, Glencore, on Thursday also said collaborative efforts on securing the rail line were indeed yielding good results.

The industry provided additional resources mainly for the night shift and with a focus on the stretch between Pretoria and Richards Bay.

Copper cable theft and vandalism have wreaked havoc across the Transnet rail network, with 100 000km of cable lost to thieves between January and October this year. Coal miners have been particularly frustrated as the resultant disruptions have coincided with record-high export coal prices while most of export capacity is at the Richards Bay Coal Terminal which is designed to only receive product by rail. To make matters worse, abundant coal stockpiles at Eskom has weighed down on domestic coal demand. 

Exxaro expects its total coal production and sales volumes for 2021 decrease by 8%, largely as a result of logistical constraints. It expects its exports for the year to be closer to 7.5 million tons, as opposed to  the 11.6 million tons it has initially planned for.

While initial efforts have led to encouraging results, there is much more work to be done, Swanepoel said.

"Unfortunately, as we know, if you erect fences your own neighbourhood higher the thieves just go to the neighbourhoods without fences.  It’s very much the same with the coal line …  the thieves have moved to other areas where the security presence is not so great."

Coal industry players including Exxaro have now augmented an initial agreement to support Transnet and the industry has agreed to direct even more resources toward securing the coal line.

Exxaro is also now working to expand  this initiative north of Pretoria on the line to Lephalale.

"We are working with the steel industry, cement industry, chrome industry and the coal industry to try to find common understanding between all these  players in different industries to find a solution," said Swanepoel. "We are making progress, but a lot slower than what we've been able to do on the historic portion of the coal line."

Security issue aside, the coal line has also been affected by operational issues that have plagued the rest of the Transnet rail network this year.

Among the biggest issues has been the inability to source spares for certain locomotives.

Here too, the private sector is stepping in.

With regards to the 19E – a locomotive class manufactured in Japan – the sector has collaborated with Transnet to involve third party procurement with a solution likely to be realised in coming months.

With regard to three classes of locomotives known as 20E, 21E and 22E, the matter is more complex as the spares are being withheld by the original equipment manufacturers, the state-owned Chinese Railway Rolling Stock Corporation (CRRC), seemingly in retaliation for legal proceedings Transnet has launched against it and others over unlawful, Gupta-linked tenders.

"When Transnet Freight Rail tried to go to other original equipment manufacturers in China to get some of those spares, [it seemed clear] that there was some leaning on to them to not cooperate," Swanepoel said.

This remains the largest challenge, and while there are some plans in place to overcome it, Swanepoel said it would be unwise to disclose further detail at this point.

Transnet Freight Rail said the green shoots of improvement witnessed in the North Corridor, are "testament to the power of collaboration" and "highlights the need for further collaboration with our customers and partners on initiatives that will bring long-term sustainable solutions to the current challenges".

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