THE VAST export terminal at Richards Bay is a critical hub for South Africa's booming coal exports, which have grown steadily in recent years to feed the hungry blast furnaces and power stations of India and China. The terminal was recently upgraded to handle up to 91 million tonnes of coal and is also increasing its throughput of other commodities.

All this should be a major opportunity for Transnet Freight Rail (TFR), but hinterland transport is currently the primary constraint on the port's ambitions. Since 1974, a 588km heavy-haul railway has linked Richards Bay with the mines of Mpumalanga, a region which accounts for more than 80% of South Africa's coal production. South of Ermelo yard, the hub of TFR's Mpumalanga coal operations, the line is electrified at 25kV ac, while to the north 3kV dc is employed.

In the financial year ending March 31, the line carried 62.2 million tonnes of coal and 11 million tonnes of general freight, against a maximum capacity of 74 million tonnes and 14 million tonnes respectively. Mining companies eager to cash in on high prices for export-grade thermal and metallurgical coal have been pushing for greater volumes on the line from Ermelo, and TFR is responding with a programme of continuous incremental expansion measures that will raise coal capacity to 81 million tonnes.

Recent important technical developments include the delivery of 110 class 19E locomotives, which can switch between electrification systems on the move, and eliminate the time-consuming locomotive change at Ermelo. The introduction of electronically-controlled pneumatic brakes (ECP) has also boosted capacity, reducing braking distances and allowing higher operating speeds.
The surge in coal volumes is only part of the challenge facing TFR on this route. General freight volumes have surged in recent years as Richards Bay has diversified into other commodities. "60% of TFR's total volumes are generated by coal and iron-ore exports, but general freight is critical for our viability and we need to grow in this market," explains TFR project director Mr Willem Kuys. "Richards Bay is developing as a mega bulk port for more than one commodity type, which means more and more general freight is using the heavy-haul line. There is potential for up to 30 million tonnes of general freight on this corridor."

With buoyant coal traffic, TFR's ability to grasp the opportunities in the general freight business is hampered by inadequate infrastructure. In its search for a solution, TFR is looking to a neighbour for assistance. An initial feasibility study for a link between Mpumalanga and Swaziland was commissioned by Swaziland Railway (SR) as long ago as 1990, and although the proposal was not pursued, it has become increasingly relevant as the coal line has become saturated. A new TFR-funded feasibility study is due to be completed in October on a 70km connection between Lothair, east of Ermelo, and the SR railhead at Matsapha (pictured).

Up to 15 million tonnes of general freight could be routed through Swaziland if this project comes to fruition, although Kuys stresses the proposal is one of a number of options currently being considered. "Other routes are being investigated and we are studying where the potential bottlenecks are likely to be," he says. "The options include an alternative route for general freight via Durban, or adding a third track on the heavy-haul line."

Developing an alternative route for general freight will be essential for realising both the coal-carrying potential of the heavy-haul line and the opportunities that exist in other commodity groups.

TFR admits that maintaining the integrity of heavy-haul operations while accommodating growing general freight volumes is a challenge. Furthermore, it says "radical transformation" of the heavy-haul line would be needed if the route is to accommodate coal volumes exceeding the current target of 81 million tonnes. This means that unless general freight traffic is diverted from the key Vryheid - Richards Bay section, substantial investments such as the construction of a second track through the 4km Overvaal tunnel will be necessary.

For Swaziland, the prospect of a new connection to the west is a tantalising one, bringing a significant increase in transit traffic and much-improved rail access to the key markets of its largest trading partner.