State-owned railway utility Transnet Freight Rail (TFR) is approaching its customers about instituting a three-year security levy, which will be used to raise the funding needed for the rapid deployment of technology-based security solutions across a network that is currently collapsing under the strain of intensifying theft and vandalism.
TFR CEO Sizakele Mzimela tells Engineering News & Mining Weekly that the levy, which will be injected into a ring-fenced security fund and governed outside of TFR’s internal procurement system, is still being canvassed with customers.
It is, thus, premature, she says, to disclose details of the final design and levy rate, which is likely to be based on a customer’s wagon movements but implemented on a sliding scale.
TFR aims to begin phasing in the levy from October 1 and expects to raised “billions” over the implementation period to fund an accelerated security roll-out for its entire network, and deploy the solutions across all corridors simultaneously to prevent a migration from current crime hot spots to new ones.
Mzimela says the proposal has not met a hostile reception, largely because most of its customers are also facing rising costs as a result of the disruptions being caused by the crime wave across the system and generally accept that investment is required to tackle the scourge.
Some have also told TFR that the cost of the levy could possibly be offset by migrating some of their bulk cargo back to rail, with more expensive road options having been introduced primarily because of security-related rail service disruptions.
There has been a 177% increase in security incidents across the rail network over the past five years and the cost to TFR and its customers has increased exponentially.
TFR’s own yearly security costs have more or less doubled over the past five years to R1.5-billion, while the cost of repairs has surged, revenue has been severely dented, and maintenance set back as a result of the criminal activity.
The nature of the incidents has also changed materially as organised syndicates have taken over from smaller criminal gangs as the main perpetrators.
Security and forensics GM Marius Bennett reports that TFR has identified 18 syndicates that are believed to be specialising in the theft of railway equipment, especially high-voltage overhead lines that, when stolen, increase the scale of the disruption and the time and cost it takes to restore operations.
Some 150 km of overhead cable were stolen in July this year alone and in the last two weeks of August there were 152 cable-theft incidents, resulting in the loss of 40-km of cable.
Previously, “bread and butter-type” criminals targeted underground cables close to informal settlements, causing less disruption to operations, which could mostly continue, albeit at a slower pace.
The number of arrests has increased dramatically, with over 1 000 people apprehended since January, but the syndicates themselves have not been penetrated.
“They are simply hiring new people to carry out the theft, much as a business might hire temporary labourers,” Bennett explains, adding that the theft is typically carried out by large and armed groupings of between 20 and 25 people.
While applauding recent arrests by the South African Police Service of people at a foundry in Middelburg, who were in possession of stolen TFR equipment, he says more needs to be down to curtail demand for stolen cable.
“We need to throttle demand and cut off the ability to export, while also targeting the actual heads of the syndicates,” Bennett tells Engineering News & Mining Weekly, warning that their criminal activities are likely to shift to new targets once TFR improves its security.
Nevertheless, the immediate priority for the utility is to secure its corridors, including its sub-stations and signalling equipment, and swing the risk-reward balance in a way that is far less favourable to the criminals than is the case currently.
Mzimela says it aims to deploy funds secured through the levy to invest in the following:
- the broad-based deployment of a distributed acoustic sensing system, which will be used to continuously monitor interference along the corridors and provide an early-warning of unusual activity;
- the installation of cats-eye reflectors along the overhead lines, to give train drivers visibility at night as to whether the line remains intact, so as to prevent high-speed derailments, which cause major damage;
- the installation of closed-circuit television cameras, double fencing and electric fencing around sub-stations to prevent breaches and activate alarms that will alert its security contractors to break-in attempts; and
- the implementation of ‘target hardening’ to make it difficult for criminals to access the high-value components they are currently stealing from signals and trackside boxes.
Bennett is confident that, by blending these technology systems with traditional security solutions, TFR will be able to reduce reaction times across the entire network to below five minutes and ensure that its 5 000-strong security team is better equipped to combat criminality on the rail system.
Mzimela describes the security intervention as a “top priority” and says she is personally participating in the meetings with customers to explain the levy and in the internal meetings to prepare the solution.
She also stresses that the procurement will be conducted in a transparent manner so as to give customers comfort that the money is being spent prudently, rapidly and absent any corruption.
“While we have to follow the processes outlined by the National Treasury for public procurement, we intend to run it independently and use experts so that we can ensure that we receive the best prices and are able to implement the projects on an accelerated basis.
“We also promise full transparency so that we can give comfort to our customers that the ring-fenced fund is being properly governed and well managed,” she concludes.