Picture: THE TIMES
Picture: THE TIMES

IN MORE than 40 years driving trains in South Africa, Jacobus Cornelius van der Merwe has never seen anything like the Shongololo.

The train carries 200 coal wagons, is as long as eight Eiffel Towers laid end to end and can haul 16,800 metric tonnes of coal at 80km/h nonstop to the country’s main export port.

"It’s a massive improvement," Mr van der Merwe says of the 580km journey, from mines in Mpumalanga southeast to Richards Bay Coal Terminal on the coast. The improvement lies in not having to change locomotives because some lines use alternating current and some direct.

About 110 dual-powered trains made by Toshiba have been put into service since 2009, while diesel locomotives on the coal route will be replaced with General Electric models. The Shongololo is part of a R201bn rail overhaul and expansion plan aimed at boosting exports of coal, manganese and other commodities from Africa’s biggest economy.

It is being rolled out by ports and rail parastatal Transnet, tapping the expertise of GE, Bombardier, CSR Zhuzhou Electric Locomotives and China CNR to manufacture the locomotives locally and increase freight capacity.

South Africa is the world’s sixth-largest coal exporter and hosts the biggest single-site terminal for the fuel. The Richards Bay Coal Terminal, on the northeastern coast of the country, has yet to match its annual capacity of 91-million tonnes because, it says, the coal could not get there.

Commodities exports from South Africa rose 5.6% to R384bn last year, according to data from the Department of Mineral Resources, and the investment is a bet on further growth. South Africa shipped 75% of its coal exports to Asia and 21% to Europe last year, according to data from the terminal’s website. A drop in coal demand could slow the expansion plans, with companies shipping less.

"The problem with infrastructure is if you are in the middle of building the railway, you can’t just stop," says Ntlai Mosiah, head of power and infrastructure and client coverage in South Africa at Standard Bank.

Most of South Africa’s coal is mined in Mpumalanga by companies including BHP Billiton and Glencore Xstrata. Before the Shongololo, trains had to stop at Ermelo, the country’s biggest rail hub for coal, switching between direct current and alternating current locomotives to continue the journey to the port. Ermelo handles about 7,000 jumbo wagons a day, according to Transnet.

The currents are different because Mpumalanga, home to the country’s richest coal mines, is in the former Transvaal, whose Afrikaner settlers used a different current from what was developed in Richards Bay under a British colonial influence.

Transnet’s upgrades have already shown results, delivering 6.9-million tonnes of coal to the terminal in August, the best month in two years. The terminal shipped a record 70-million tonnes of coal last year.

Transnet awarded a R2.6bn contract to China’s CSR Zhuzhou for 95 locomotives, 85 of which will be built at Transnet Engineering’s unit in Pretoria.

The Chinese locomotives will mostly be used to haul manganese, South Africa’s seventh-biggest commodities export, from Postmasburg in the Northern Cape to Port Elizabeth and the planned Ngqura terminal, both on the southern coast, helping to boost exports from 5.5-million tonnes to a potential 16-million tonnes over the next six years, Transnet says.

"The Chinese are amazing," Transnet CEO Brian Molefe said in an interview in February. "They showed us these excellent locomotives. They could deliver about 14 months before everyone."

Transnet is improving more than 20,000km of track, including replacing wooden ties with concrete ones along the rail lines. This will let the Shongololo shave the journey to Richards Bay to eight hours from 10.

Mr van der Merwe got his first job as an assistant to the train driver in 1971 at age 16, as South Africa belatedly introduced diesel locomotives to replace coal-fired engines. "It’s crazy," he says. The diesel-powered train carried 40 wagons of coal, at a top speed of 50km/h.

The 80km/h speed of the Shongololo will be needed as rivals gear up. Brazil’s Vale has budgeted $4.5bn for a rail line and port in Mozambique. By 2017, it plans to transport 22-million tonnes of coal a year.

Botswana, with 200-billion tonnes of coal reserves in its central region, needs $33bn in rail network investment to ship the fuel, according to its Chamber of Mines. The landlocked country plans to export 65-million tonnes when the 1,500km Trans-Kalahari Railway, linking coalfields to the port in Walvis Bay in Namibia, is completed in five years.

While other coal-producing countries grapple with lack of infrastructure, South Africa’s economy is set to benefit as the Shongololo displaces trains that date back to the 1980s.

"There had not been any major capital expenditure in 40 years," Mr Molefe said. "So we have in Pretoria a modern building, a bunch of young engineers and their mandate is to resolve port-rail related challenges. I’m sure we can crack it after a while."