Transnet Freight Rail (TFR) has set up a war room together with the South Africa Police Service (SAPS) in a bid to deal with a surge in infrastructure theft, as well as recent acts of sabotage and vandalism on its key coal corridor from Ermelo, in Mpumalanga, to Richards Bay, in KwaZulu-Natal.
On December 20, a 200-wagon coal train derailed at Elubana, near Richards Bay, after saboteurs cut a portion of the line using a blowtorch. No injuries were reported, but 51 wagons derailed and TFR issued force majeure notice.
GM Caesar Mtetwa tells Engineering News Online that TFR chose to describe the incident as sabotage, after investigations could uncover no evidence of a commercial motive for the crime.
“These well-resourced individuals were intent on causing a derailment.”
Neither the TFR nor the SAPS have been able to established the exact motive, but Mtetwe reports that the incidents appear to be related to “misdirected anger” towards TFR by a group of disgruntled community members and business people, who believe they should be benefiting more directly from the utility’s activities in the region.
The rail company has made several attempts over the past 24 months to address these concerns and at one point even made representations to the Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelithini, to seek his direct intervention.
“Until the December incident, things had been seemingly calmed down. But we now plan to redouble our efforts at engaging with the community in an effort to get to the bottom of what is behind the discontent.”
The incident resulted in the loss of 850 000 t of coal and a direct revenue impact for TFR of R300-million. “The cost from a South Africa Incorporated perspective is far higher, as the coal owners were unable to fulfill their export orders and most of the coal could not be recovered from the site of the incident.
Mtetwe describes as “mammoth” the task of clearing the derailment and repairing the lines, which included replacing 760 m of track, 850 sleepers and five mast poles.
Criminal investigations into the sabotage are ongoing and arrests are believed to be imminent.
Besides incidents of sabotage, TFR has also become increasingly concerned about a surge in the theft of infrastructure assets, particularly of the general freight lines linking the country’s harbours to the industrial heartland of Gauteng.
While copper theft has been a constant scourge for Transnet, Eskom and Telkom for many years, Mtetwe reports that there has been a sharp increase in cable and equipment theft over the past 24 months.
“We used to lose about 6 km of copper wire a month in and around the Gauteng region. The monthly figure has now risen to about 16 km, which is also leading to serious operational disruption.”
TFR has also experienced a surge in the theft of batteries, used to back up power supply to its signalling systems, with the number of batteries stolen having climbed from about 5 000 units a year to 24 000.
The financial impact of crime on Transnet is currently running into billions of rand over and above the R2-billion the group is spending on private security yearly, the bulk of which is dedicated to the rail business.
The utility is responding to the rise in copper theft by replacing the cables with low- or no-copper alternatives. It is also working with the SAPS on operations that focus on improving reaction times to incidents.
Following a recent meeting between Transnet CEO Tau Morwe and National Police Commissioner General Khehla Sitole it was decided that a war room should be established to focus on the theft occurring on TFR’s network.
“The idea is to replicate, for rail, the cooperative relationship that was deployed successfully in dealing with the recent surge in cash-in-transit attacks,” Mtetwe reports.
While refusing to divulge full operational details, he confirmed that response times have already improved as a result of the cooperation, as well as the deployment of drones to monitor the network.
Regular meetings are also being held with the Hawks and SAPS crime intelligence in a bid to discover “who the kingpins are behind this copper theft so that the police can move to arrest and charge these individuals”.