SA coal exports hobbled once more following latest instalment of cable theft

COAL deliveries to Richards Bay faced an 18 hour delay after the latest instalment of cable theft resulted in a line closure, said Transnet Freight Rail (TFR) today.

South Africa’s government-owned logistics and freight company said there were two incidents of theft on Tuesday evening of which one – in Mswaneni between Vryheid and Ulundi on a tunnel bypass – saw “extensive” removal of wire. Contact wire was also vandalised while spans of steel work were damaged.

“TFR has had to close the line to clear the load on the track, which will take approximately eight hours,” it said. “Once the load has been cleared a further 10 hours will be required to repair the line.”

The other incident on the North Corridor last night was an attempted cable theft at Mkhondo and required two hours of repair work, which has now been completed, said TFR. TFR is the largest revenue earner for Transnet which also runs South Africa’s ports as well as petroleum pipelines.

“These incidents are a clear indication that TFR is under siege from organised crime across the country,” it said.

Approximately 1,500 km of cable was stolen in the financial year ending March 2022. The net financial impact of this is approximately R4.1bn which includes operational disruptions, security costs, remediation and lost opportunity of foreign direct earnings.

In calendar 2021 the Richards Bay Coal Terminal exported just 58.72 million tons (Mt) of coal which was the lowest annual export volume since 1996 when 58.7Mt was exported. The RBCT’s targeted export volume for 2021 was 77Mt which matched TFR’s current “nameplate” capacity to rail coal to the RBCT with an additional 3.5Mt for the much smaller Grindrod RBT terminal.

TFR recently undertook a 10-day maintenance shutdown on the coal line in which about 36 kilometres of line on the coal network had also been replaced. It was hoped this work would see RBCT match last year’s export volumes.

Under-delivery of coal deliveries to South Africa’s port comes at an especially frustrating time given that year-to-date thermal coal prices have increased about 165% amid an energy crisis most keenly felt in Europe.

In April, TFR issued a force majeure with coal exporters using RBCT because of its “inability to perform services at its stated system capacity”. It ripped up the take-or-pay agreements with exporters with a view to renegotiating new terms.

TFR said it had since signed new agreements with most coal exporters but as of August 5, head of Glencore Coal South Africa, Murray Houston, said his company were yet to put pen to paper. “We remain in discussion,” said Houston at the time.

Houston said it was likely that for the year TRF would deliver between 55 to 60Mt through RBCT.

Transnet said it was “hard at work” attempting to “mitigate the scourge” of cable theft including deploying drones and tactical task teams and collaborating with the industry on its security initiatives.

TFR’s security officers were recently granted peace officer status by Ronald Lamola, South Africa’s Justice and Correctional Services minister. This enables the company to make arrests and assist the National Prosecuting Authority with prosecutions.