In more than 40 years driving trains
in South Africa, Jacobus Cornelius Van der Merwe has never seen
anything like the Shongololo.
The train, whose name means millipede in Zulu, carries 200
coal wagons, is as long as eight Eiffel Towers laid end-to-end
and can haul 16,800 metric tons of coal at 80 kilometers per
hour (50 miles per hour) non-stop to the country’s main export
“It’s a massive improvement,” Van der Merwe, 59, said of
580-kilometer (360 mile) journeys from mines in Mpumalanga
southeast to Richards Bay Coal Terminal on the coast, without
having to change locomotives because some lines use alternating
current and some direct. About 110 dual-powered trains made by
Toshiba Corp. been put in service since 2009, while diesel
locomotives on the coal route will be replaced with General
Electric Co. (GE) models.
The Shongololo is part of a 201 billion rand ($18.48
billion) rail overhaul and expansion plan aimed at boosting
exports of coal, manganese and other commodities from Africa’s
biggest economy. It’s being rolled out by Transnet SOC Ltd., the
state-owned ports and rail operator, tapping the expertise of
GE, Bombardier Inc., CSR Zhuzhou Electric Locomotives Co. and
China CNR Corporation Ltd to manufacture the locomotives locally
and increase freight capacity.
While South Africa is the world’s sixth-largest coal
exporter, the country hosts the biggest single-site terminal for
the fuel. The Richards Bay Coal Terminal, located on the
northeastern coast of the country has yet to match its annual
capacity of 91 million tons because it says the coal couldn’t
Commodities exports in Africa’s biggest economy rose 5.6
percent to 384 billion rand in 2013, according to data from the
country’s Department of Mineral Resources, and the investment is
a bet on further growth. South Africa shipped 75 percent of its
coal exports to Asia and 21 percent to Europe in 2013, according
to data from the terminal’s website. A drop in coal demand could
slow the expansion plans with companies shipping less.
“The problem with infrastructure is if you are in the
middle of building the railway you can’t just stop,” Ntlai Mosiah, head of power and infrastructure and client coverage in
South Africa at Standard Bank Group, said in a March 3
Most of South Africa’s coal is mined in Mpumalanga
province, about 300 kilometers east of Johannesburg, by
companies including BHP Billiton Ltd. (BHP) and Glencore Xstrata Plc. (GLEN)
Before the Shongololo, trains had to stop at Ermelo, the
country’s biggest rail hub for coal, switching between direct
current and alternating current locomotives to continue the
journey to the port. Ermelo handles about 7,000 jumbo wagons a
day, according to Transnet.
The currents are different because Mpumalanga, home to the
country’s richest coal mines, is located in the northern region
formerly known as Transvaal, where the Afrikaners who settled
there used a different current than what was developed in
Richard’s Bay under a British colonial influence.
Transnet’s upgrades have already shown results, delivering
6.9 million tons of coal to the terminal in August, the best
month in two years. The terminal shipped about 70 million tons
of coal last year, a record.
The Chinese locomotives will mostly be used to haul
manganese, South Africa’s seventh-biggest commodities export,
from Postmasburg in the Northern Cape province to Port Elizabeth
and the planned Ngqura terminal, both on the southern coast,
helping to boost exports from 5.5 million tons to a potential 16
million tons over the next six years, according to the company.
“The Chinese are amazing,” Brian Molefe, CEO of Transnet,
said in an interview in Johannesburg in February. “They showed
us these excellent locomotives. They could deliver about 14
months before everyone.”
Transnet is improving more than 20,000 kilometers of track,
a project that includes replacing wooden ties with concrete ones
along the rail lines. This will let the Shongololo, which
carries eight AC/DC locomotives and 200 jumbo wagons stretching
2.5 kilometers, shave the journey to Richard’s Bay to eight
hours from 10.
Van der Merwe got his first job as an assistant to the
train driver in 1971 at age 16, as South Africa belatedly
introduced diesel locomotives to replace coal-fired engines.
“It’s crazy,” he said in a phone interview. The diesel-powered train carried 40 wagons of coal, at top speed of 50
kilometers per hour. The Shongololo, he said, pulling five
times as many wagons, can cruise at 80 kilometers per hour.
That speed will be needed as competitors gear up. Vale SA (VALE),
based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, has budgeted $4.5 billion for a
railway line and a port in Mozambique. By 2017, Vale will
transport 22 million tons of coal a year, it said in an e-mailed
response to questions March 14.
Botswana, with 200 billion tons of coal reserves in its
central region, needs $33 billion in rail network investment to
ship the fuel, according to its Chamber of Mines. The landlocked
country plans to export 65 million tons when the 1,500 kilometer
Trans-Kalahari railway, linking coalfields to the port in Walvis
Bay in Namibia, is completed in five years.
While other coal producing countries grapple with lack of
infrastructure, the South African economy is set to benefit as
the Shongololo displaces trains that date back to the 1980s.
“There had not been any major capital expenditure, at
least of scale, in the last 40 years,” Molefe said. “So we
have in Pretoria, a modern building, a bunch of young engineers
and their mandate is to resolve port-rail related challenges.
I’m sure we can crack it after a while.”
To contact the reporters on this story:
Kamlesh Bhuckory in Johannesburg at
Paul Burkhardt in Johannesburg at
To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Simon Thiel at
John Viljoen at
Philip Revzin, Antony Sguazzin