According to South Africa’s Chamber of Mines, the sector supports a million direct and indirect jobs and accounts for around 18% of GDP, making it a driver in the country’s efforts to tackle income inequality, poverty, and unemployment.

The efficiency of pit-to-port transport has always been critical to the competitiveness of mineral exports, but despite investment in infrastructure, bottlenecks have continued to constrain the supply chain. State-owned port, rail and pipeline conglomerate Transnet is working to lift the performance of the freight transport system through its Market Demand Strategy (MDS) a seven-year rolling plan launched in 2012 which aims to meet validated market demand through the creation of new infrastructure and capacity.

The principal objective of the MDS is to close the gap between the market demand for cargo transport and handling services and the capacity to satisfy this demand. The MDS aims to grow rail volumes to 273 mtpa by 2024.

However, with continued uncertainty over the global economy clouding the prospects for mineral demand, and a challenging economic environment at home, the MDS has been recalibrated to reflect current conditions. Transnet now plans to invest Rand 229.2bn in 2018-2024 (Rand 48.6bn less than previously envisaged) including a Rand 20bn “war chest” which will enable the company to identify and respond to opportunities to diversify revenue streams. Total capital spending over the next 10 years is now expected to range between Rand 340bn and Rand 380bn.

The MDS has already delivered heavy investment in new technologies and equipment, alongside the modernisation of infrastructure.

BOMBARDIER TRAXX AfricaHeavy-haul operations are the core of Transnet’s rail business. The 861km Sishen - Saldanha iron-ore line and the 1242km coal system linking the mines of Mpumalanga province with the port of Richards Bay account for just 7% of the Transnet Freight Rail (TFR) network but carry more than 60% of volumes.

By applying the technical and operating principles of its heavy-haul corridors to general freight lines, TFR hopes to achieve significant uplift in the efficiency of its bulk operations in other parts of the country. TFR plans to expand its heavy-haul network from 2103km in 2015 to 4438km by 2030, an increase of 111%.

South Africa holds around 75% of the world’s known manganese reserves and accounts for around 31% of manganese exports by value.

An upgrading programme is being implemented on the 1200km Manganese Export Line from Hotazel in Northern Cape to Kimberley, De Aar, and Coega in Eastern Cape to meet demand from manganese producers. The project includes the construction of a new bulk export terminal at the new port of Ngqura and will raise rail capacity from 5.5 million tonnes to 12 million tonnes initially and 16 million tonnes in the longer-term. When all phases are complete, TFR will operate 225-wagon trains with 26-tonne axleloads, radio-distributed power (RDP) and electronically-controlled pneumatic braking (ECP).

Another area where miners are seeking more rail capacity is the Waterberg region of Limpopo province, which has 40% of the country’s remaining coal reserves.

In July 2016 TFR completed a 1.8km-long passing loop at Matlabas, enabling 100-wagon coal trains to pass. This increased capacity for coal on the line from Lephalale to 2 million tonnes. The second phase of the project will be completed in March 2019, and capacity will ultimately increase to six million tonnes.

Swaziland Rail Link

In the longer-term, TFR plans to build a new heavy-haul railway to link Botswana’s Mmamabula mine project and the Waterberg region with Lothair near Ermelo, where it would meet the planned Swaziland Rail Link (SRL). The new line would be electrified at 25kV ac with a maximum axleload of 26 tonnes, and could carry up to 100 million tonnes of coal per year. A feasibility study is due to be completed this year.

SRL will create a new 146km route via Swaziland for coal traffic and general freight to both Richards Bay and Maputo in Mozambique. The line from Lothair in Mpumalanga to Sidvokodvo in Swaziland will have a maximum axleload of 26 tonnes and will accommodate 200-wagon trains, with capacity for 12 trains per day.

SRL is being procured as a public-private partnership, and Swaziland Railway says the process of finding suitable investors is now underway.

SRL will provide an alternative route for general freight trains from Ermelo to Richards Bay, which currently occupy valuable capacity on the heavy-haul coal line via the Overvaal Tunnel.

Transnet has a long history of harnessing the latest technologies to improve its operating performance, and alongside investment in rolling stock and infrastructure, digitalisation will help the company to achieve many of its aims in the rail sector. Furthermore, by aligning itself more closely with its customers and port operations, TFR is working to optimise processes and resource utilisation across the entire supply chain.