Our Burning Planet

COAL EXPORT CHAOS

Crisis meeting called after trucks block N2 highway and trash local airfield

Crisis meeting called after trucks block N2 highway and trash local airfield
The N2 highway north of Richards Bay was gridlocked by coal trucks last week. (Photo: Road Angels Traffic Angels)

Residents, businesses and taxi owners are fed up with the endless convoys of coal trucks rumbling through the port city of Richards Bay, resulting in traffic jams, cracked roads and new road safety hazards.

The situation reached a crescendo late last week, when up to 600 coal trucks piled up next to the main entrance to Richards Bay, bringing traffic to a standstill along sections of the N2. 

Eyewitnesses said the trucks were lined up on both sides of the highway at one point, with others parked two abreast along a 12 km section of the N2. Some drivers had been stuck there for nearly three days, without easy access to food, water or toilets. 

 As a temporary solution, irate taxi operators “escorted” the trucks to an airfield in the nearby town of Empangeni on Friday.  But, weighed down with heavy loads of coal, the trucks trashed the airfield as their wheels churned up the grass runway at the new temporary staging area.

According to Transnet, the back-up of truck traffic outside the town was exacerbated by “national events which took place on February 21 in the Richards Bay CBD, during which trucks were halted from entering the city”. 

Richards Bay town centre was the scene of Armed Forces Day celebrations attended by President Cyril Ramaphosa and about 8,000 members of the SA National Defence Force on that day. The event included a medal presentation and military parade through the streets of Richards Bay ahead of joint naval exercises off the KwaZulu-Natal coast by Russia, China and South Africa.

SANDF members parade through Richards Bay during rehearsals ahead of the 2023 Armed Forces Day. (Photo: GCIS)

However, Christo Botha, a local councillor and executive committee member of the City of Umhlathuze local municipality, has laid the blame for truck congestion squarely at the door of “Transnet management ineptitude”, along with coal transporters cashing in on high coal prices caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

According to the International Energy Association, Russia is the third largest coal exporter in the world and trade sanctions by Western governments have led to a reconfiguration of global coal flow to Europe that has been filled largely by coal producers in South Africa, Colombia, Tanzania, Botswana and elsewhere.

Mike French, a light aircraft pilot from Richards Bay, said the Empangeni runway had been “totally trashed by the invasion of our airfield”.

“Not only have they severely damaged the runway, but it is against civil aviation regulations to hinder access to an airfield that is used for essential services such as air ambulance emergency operations and crime patrols.”

Although the trucks moved off the airfield late on Friday and early Saturday, French asked: “Who is going to pay to fix the runway at a time when the district municipality has already cut back on financial support for the airfield?”

Botha, who has been at the forefront of Umhlathuze’s efforts to resolve the coal truck crisis, said there had been regular incidents of coal truck congestion in the city since August and a multi-stakeholder meeting with a wide range of parties has been scheduled for March 8.

“The chaos we have experienced over recent days and months boils down to a total collapse management by Transnet port operations,” he suggested. “We can no longer allow these failures to impact negatively on our city, business owners and residents.”

Botha suggested a combination of reasons for the current crisis, including the deliberate sabotage or disruption of the Transnet rail network leading to the Richards Bay Coal Terminal.

Coal road trucks stacked up at the Empangeni airfield have mashed up the grass runway. (Photo: Supplied)

Transnet has also acknowledged that freight locomotive operations nationwide have been severely hampered by its legal dispute with the China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation (CRRC), with nearly 160 of these locomotives non-operational, exacerbated by delivery delays of another 99 CRRC locomotives.

Botha said the problems in Richards Bay port had been compounded by poor management in processing the unprecedented surge in coal exports by road hauliers.

“Many of these trucks are coming from Ermelo and other coal fields in Mpumalanga. They just keep coming in and Portnet is not able to handle the volume – even though some of the loads are not scheduled to be exported for another three to four months. Yet Transnet still allows them to offload at temporary stockpiles.”


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Residents, businesses and taxi owners are fed up with the endless convoys of coal trucks rumbling through the port city of Richards Bay, resulting in traffic jams, cracked roads and new road safety hazards.

While traffic police were restricting the number of coal trucks entering the port via the main John Ross Highway and R619, some truckers were using back roads in the vicinity of Richards Bay Minerals to get through via the Meer en See residential area.

“The City of Umhlathuze only has 27 traffic officers. These officers are split into shifts and now that several are deployed to assist the KZN provincial Road Traffic Inspectorate along the N2, the number of traffic officers are spread very thin to patrol and enforce the law in other parts of the city,” said Botha.

Because of the regular congestion and backlog to enter the main harbour, local residents, business owners and taxi associations were at their wits end, he said. 

“Transnet’s problem becomes our problem when they shut the harbour gates. This is not something that is going to go away any time soon, so Transnet needs to come up with a solution.” he warned.

One possible solution, he suggested, was the rapid establishment of a large truck stop and stockpiling yard and new coal conveyance equipment. Botha believes this will require the city or other landowners to provide at least 20ha for a new coal yard and a further 40ha for a truck stop.

Our Burning Planet contacted Transnet to establish what it was doing to resolve the crisis.

In a joint statement, issued after a meeting between Transnet, the SA National Roads Agency and the provincial road traffic inspectorate on Friday, the three authorities said they had discussed ways of working together to decongest municipal roads and the N2 Highway. 

According to their statement, the primary cause of the sudden influx in recent days was due to “national events which took place on February 21 in the Richards Bay CBD, during which trucks were halted from entering the city”. 

Traffic flow had “now improved drastically due to contingency plans put in place by the Port, RTI and the city’s traffic department”. 

“The city has emphasized its willingness to continue to work closely with Transnet and other stakeholders in resolving the issue of truck congestion. The city has plans to construct a truck stop, which will assist in alleviating the influx of trucks on the roads – and the process is at an advanced stage.

“Immediate plans have been put to the table and a call has been made for the involvement of other industries to also come on board and become part of the solution. The city has overwhelmingly welcomed Transnet’s immediate plans to remedy the situation and have pledged their full support.”

Some of the contingency plans put in place include: 

  • 300 trucks would be allowed inside the port vicinity with immediate effect. This included trucks temporarily stationed at the Empangeni airport and those currently on the N2. 
  • A new colour-coded truck-calling process would be implemented and managed collaboratively with customers. 
  • Trucks would have to be dispatched with a sticker on their windscreens to identify which area/vessel they are destined for. 
  • New staging areas would be operationalised inside the port terminals. Trucks would be pulled off public roads into new staging and offloading areas in terms of the colour-coding system. 
  • Naval Island would become a new, temporary staging area, until the situation improved. 
  • Transnet had beefed up offloading capacity by deploying additional resources to avoid further congestion. 
  • Staging area personnel would communicate with truck supervisors via a two-way radio system to improve guidance to destinations. The port was also negotiating with its customers to hire more traffic marshalls.
  • Should any truck arrive in Richards Bay without a permit, they should be reported to the road traffic department and a fine would be issued 

“Community members are advised to remain calm and vigilant when driving in the affected road networks during this period. The City of Umhlathuze strongly urges the community to refrain from taking the law into their own hands and to allow law enforcement agencies space to perform their duties diligently.” DM/OBP

Gallery
Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Deon Botha-Richards says:

    And all down to the complete failure at Transnet. Not doubt further exasperated further by sabotage from the trucking companies.

    How crime destroys our country

  • Michael Hennessy says:

    How is Botswana a major coal exporter?

  • Katharine Ambrose says:

    Is this all the trucks of stolen high grade coal? Maybe that’s why law enforcement wants to expedite traffic flow by performing their duties diligently… just as diligently as the cartels in mpumulanga go about their theft.

  • Colleen Dardagan says:

    What a horrible, horrible mess

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    A legal dispute with the Chinese, supporting a war by the Russians and allowing the Guptas fromIndia to rob the South African taxpayers with impunity. The ANC sure knows how to pick its friends….with friends like these who needs enemies! What a joke this lovely country has become…the rest of the world must be laughing their heads off!!!!

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    The ANC couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery LOL!

  • virginia crawford says:

    Real tin pot dictator behaviour: cause chaos by having a meaningless military parade and dishing out medals. Perhaps citizens could start taking down number plates and forwarding them to the Hawks. The article about the cartels links trucking companies to corruption and the sabotage of the rail network.

  • Johan Snyman says:

    The ANC must get the railway rolling again. This will relieve the country from paying for road repairs.

  • Peter Milligan says:

    A further concern is the extensive damage to KZN roads by the coal trucks. During the temporary embargo on trucks using the N2 after the tragic death of 21 children near Pongola, after they were hit by a coal truck, the trucks diverted to the R33, R66 and R34 roads to get to Richards Bay via Vryheid. I drive these roads regularly and they have been ruined. Surely the coal miners and the road freight association should bear some responsibility for this!

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