Business Maverick


Blow for SA’s coal exports as crucial Transnet rail line faces major disruptions

Blow for SA’s coal exports as crucial Transnet rail line faces major disruptions
For days, (14-18 January 2024) the coal export line to Richards Bay was closed and export activity largely suspended after two trains collided. (Photo: Supplied)

The coal export line to Richards Bay has been closed and export activity largely suspended because two trains collided at the weekend. This is a major blow to efforts by the government and organised business to reform Transnet’s crumbling logistics operations.

South Africa’s coal exports are already facing a blow in the early days of 2024, with one of the country’s most crucial and busiest railway lines facing major disruptions.

The coal export line to Richards Bay has been closed and export activity largely suspended after two trains collided at the weekend. 

Transnet Freight Rail, the largest division of the state-owned transport group Transnet, confirmed the collision of two trains in the early hours of Sunday, 14 January on the coal export line to Richards Bay. The incident happened at the Elubana Rail corridor outside Richards Bay in KwaZulu-Natal, with no serious reported injuries, Transnet said.

The collision has resulted in an interruption of export activity on the train line, hobbling efforts by the government and organised business to reform Transnet’s rail operations, which are dysfunctional and undermine the domestic economy. 

The affected coal export line, which runs from Mpumalanga, descending from the Highveld through rural KwaZulu-Natal and terminating at Richards Bay, is vital for the mining industry. 

Through this line, mining companies rail coal and related products that they produce to market, using locomotives (the heavy-haul ones that are supposed to pull the coal and iron ore wagons). However, the line has been beset by mismanagement by Transnet officials, years of underinvestment in maintenance, and incidents of theft and vandalism, which have made it unreliable for industry.

Declining coal volumes through the years

For instance, Transnet moved 56 million tonnes (mt) of coal in 1996 on the coal rail line to the Richards Bay Coal Terminal. Coal volumes peaked in 2017 at 76mt but fell to 72mt in 2020. In 2021, volumes were down again to 58mt and remained flat at 58.3mt in 2022. Volumes declined further by the end of March 2023 to reach 48.7mt, with the entire year set for an even steeper decline.

In recent months, there have been several disruptions to the coal export line to Richards Bay, mainly caused by the derailment of trains. For example, in November 2022, a train derailed at Transnet’s main line in Ulundi en route to Richards Bay, resulting in the company pencilling lost earnings estimated at R1-billion a day.

Transnet blamed the derailment on acts of sabotage, allegedly committed by a “business forum” in the area after it failed to secure business opportunities at Transnet. However, there have been unconfirmed reports that the main cause of the derailment in November 2022 was negligence, with trains moving at high speeds before the catastrophic incident.

As for the Sunday incident at the main coal line, Transnet provided few details, saying that an investigation “is under way to determine the cause of the accident.

“TFR [Transnet Freight Rail] teams were dispatched to the scene immediately and recovery efforts began in earnest… Environmental teams are also at the scene to ensure compliance in the recovery and clean-up operations,” said Transnet. It added that further updates would be provided in due course.

According to News24 Business, human error and a failure in Transnet’s systems may have been the cause of Sunday’s collision — pointing to a much more dire situation at the state-owned company. 

Most of Transnet Freight Rail’s train management and handling systems are still manual and not digitised, relying on signalling and phone communication to manage their movement. News24 Business writes that signalling equipment at Transnet Freight Rail is frequently stolen, which makes communication among train control operators and drivers difficult and collisions more likely.

It is suspected that Transnet’s systems, during a shift change, failed to alert one of the incoming trains on the coal line that another train had stopped due to a power outage, causing the collision.

Inherent risks

Gavin Kelly, the CEO of the Road Freight Association, said the collision underscored the vulnerability of the coal line due to “the inherent risks of outdated manual systems and poor operational control”.

Kelly warned that the derailment would take some time to clear, even up to a few days, which might further push the mining sector to transport coal via road instead of Transnet’s unreliable rail network. 

“There will need to be an investigation into what damage was caused to the line and direct systems [for example, signalling and power supply], but more importantly, how such a recurrence can be prevented. 

“An example of [this prevention] — where load shedding may indeed cause such incidents — [means] sustainable electricity supply to all sections of the line must be secured as and when required,” Kelly said.

Derailed reform progress

The government, working with organised business, had started to show progress in reforming Transnet’s rail operation. One of the big developments around Transnet is the Cabinet’s approval of a logistics plan that entails the state-owned company embracing the private sector as a partner for delivery. The plan sets out timelines for everything, including allowing private ­sector companies access to railway lines to run trains independently, and investing in locomotives to address shortages. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Cabinet approves plan to break Transnet’s monopoly and promote competition in SA’s logistics network

The plan was drafted by the Presidency and organised business, with help from logistics experts. A source close to the Presidency told Daily Maverick that until investments are urgently made in Transnet’s rail operations to upgrade infrastructure and technology, there will be more adverse rail incidents and disruptions. 

“Years of neglect and underinvestment are now showing through rail disasters,” the source said. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • wolf.stinnes says:

    Does this now mean the good coal cannot get to the export harbour and can be used by Eskom?

    • Michael Friedrich says:

      Good question !

    • Janette Klein says:

      Golly I hope so. We could use the high quality coal being exported to China to fuel our own power stations. The irony is that one train was stopped during a power outage. Also, if we stop the coal trains speeding through the game reserves, we will be helping the Rhino population. I think 4 rhinos were killed by trains last year, as well as numerous other animals.

  • Geoff Krige says:

    “Kelly warned that the derailment . . might further push the mining sector to transport coal via road”. What Kelly fails to say is that this will cause ZAR billions of further damage to the already stressed South African roads network, disproportionately funded by ordinary motorists (one truck causes at least 500 times more damage to roads than one car, but pays only 4 times the toll fees). So the burden of government and SOE incompetence again falls squarely on the South African motorist and taxpayer.

  • Susan Scott says:

    Atlas Shrugged? Written in the 1950’s by Ayn Rand. Collapse of just about everything. Weak and dysfunctional government.

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    How, in the 21st century, can such a critical line not be digital? That is absolutely criminal! It is absolutely ANC. It is also probably as a result of staunch opposition form the unions, who, in order to cling on to a couple of thousand redundant jobs at our ports and railways, are prepared to see hundreds of thousands of people denied the chance to have a job in mining and manufacturing industries. They’re absolute criminals too!

  • Richard Robinson says:


  • John P says:

    Time to bring back steam locos, at least they are immune to loadshedding and fit the age of the operating system 🙂

  • Geoff Coles says:

    That’s quite a photograph…..human error probably. Not a good area and fixing will take longer than any estimate I suspect.

  • Patrick O'Shea says:

    Sounds as though someone was asleep at the wheel.

  • William Dryden says:

    They blame the accidents due power outages and that train drivers could not communicate to let one know that a train had stopped on the line due to power outage. Have these people not heard about walkie talkies that were used by truck drivers to communicate with each other, it’s not rocket science. Stop blaming problems on everything, start being procative and give them 2 way radio’s.

  • Ray Jones says:

    Locally, it’s being openly said that the derailing was caused by Truckers Sabatage

  • Peter Worman says:

    Perhaps its time to investigate the trucking companies who must be minting it courtesy of Transnets inefficiency or is it sabotage. The same problem reported at Eskom It seems is that a small connected bunch of people thrive in the chaos

  • Matthew Quinton says:

    Comment on all the posts above:

    1. Of COURSE if was sabotage by a trucker’s union
    2. No steam locos and walkies wont work, both are “future tech” way beyond our capabilities
    3. No it WONT be cleared “in a few days”
    4. Yes the roads will be broken
    5. Yes the coal could be used locally, but that will disrupt a gravy train and so it will never happen
    6. How can it not be digital? Come now!! Need you ask!?
    7. “Investigate” There is no one competent to “investigate” and even if there was there is no willingness to prosecute and even if there was the courts dont work and even if they did the jails leak quicker than Gauteng’s water network.

    Transformation is AAAAALMOST complete now.

  • Timothy G says:

    If it is determined that the derailment is as a result of an act of sabotage, this should be declared an instance of treason and the perps be taken outside and shot (or sent to prison for 25-30 years). If it is neglect, the neglectors should get the same sentence.

  • drew barrimore says:

    That photograph precisely sums up thirty years of ANC mis-government. It is perfect.

  • Charles Butcher says:

    Ay least it will slow down the rampant theft by the governmunt

  • Francoise Phillips says:

    The Presidency asks for more investment in rail while his very own party looted our rail infrastructure for hundreds of billions to enrich itself. Vote the looters out of government and into jail.

  • Francoise Phillips says:

    The ANC thrives off robbing South Africa through criminally inflated road transport tenders for coal. The ANC steals and destroys to keep on sucking the nation dry.

  • Mendo Gampu says:

    Poor management and theft of cables due to no job opportunities, poverty and inequality in SA.

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