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The logistics of transporting coal

By Kelly-Ann Prinsloo

Mining and railways have always gone hand in hand. The quintessential image of a cocopan rattling along a track deep within a mine is one most of us are familiar with, especially if you grew up in South Africa where mines abound.

The ubiquitous nature of mine railways is not because that type of transport was deemed most suitable for mining. Instead, when commercial mining took off in South Africa almost two centuries ago, it was the only form of transport readily available.

In recent years, however, with the advent of road-based logistics and massive pipelines stretching across hundreds of kilometres, rail-based logistics have become less popular. One commodity that still frequently makes use of trains though is coal.

Black gold

Despite the developed world’s attempts to move onto ‘greener’ energy sources, coal is still a major commodity worldwide and in South Africa especially. South Africa produces in excess of 255 million tonnes of coal a year and consumes almost three quarters of that domestically. Almost 92% of coal consumed on the African continent is produced in South Africa.

Coal is commonly referred to as ‘black gold’ in South Africa and, considering how much of it South Africa has and how valuable it still is, the moniker is understandable. A large percentage of the coal produced in South Africa can be found in Mpumalanga; so much so that when Witbank (the province’s biggest city) was renamed, it was called eMalahleni, which means ‘place of coal’ in Zulu.

Moving the coal, which Mpumalanga produces, to various power generation facilities around the country and to the Richards Bay Coal Terminal (RBCT), is a mammoth task.

Freight Rail is the largest division of South Africa’s national rail operator, Transnet, and employs about 25 000 people around the country. The extensive network maintained by Freight Rail connects with other rail networks in sub-Saharan Africa and represents about 80% of the total rail infrastructure on the continent.

Coal is a vital export commodity, generating billions of rands in foreign exchange earnings for South Africa and deserving its pseudonym ‘black gold’. CoalLink is a Transnet Freight Rail specialist business unit that provides transport for South Africa’s export coal from the Mpumalanga coalfields to the RBCT.

The RBCT was built in 1976 and is the country’s premier bulk port, handling in excess of 80 million tonnes annually. This represents 55% of South Africa’s seaborne cargo.

Beginning at Mpumalanga’s 44 coal-rich mines, the 580km rail line descends from the Highveld and winds its way through rural KwaZulu-Natal, ending in Richards Bay.

The benefits of moving a commodity like coal by rail are obvious: rail is cheaper and massive quantities can be moved at a time, on a dedicated railway line. Yet, a relatively low percentage — only 10% — of coal is transported by rail, unlike the 60% that is transported by conveyor systems and the 30% that is transported by road.

In May last year, while addressing delegates at the Intelligence Transfer Centre’s second yearly Coal Transportation Africa summit (held in Johannesburg), Eskom’s head of road logistics, Nico Singh, said that the state-owned power utility was pressing ahead with its strategy to reduce the number of trucks that are required to transport coal to power stations. Singh added that an element of road haulage would always be involved in moving Eskom’s coal, because road transport provides a flexibility that conveyor systems and railway lines just cannot match. But road transport is also dangerous and adds to South Africa’s already congested roads.

As part of Eskom’s road-to-rail strategy, it intends to increase the percentage of rail transportation use over the next five to ten years. Singh explained that the road-to-rail migration strategy is a “national strategic imperative” for several reasons. These include the need to reduce fatalities on South Africa’s roads significantly; reduce damage and congestion on limited road infrastructure; and minimise the negative health impact of coal haulage on towns and communities near coal mining centres.

Economic advantages include reducing coal transportation costs (which will enable the optimisation of electricity tariffs), and boosting South Africa’s economy through significant rail infrastructure upgrade programmes, creating many new job opportunities in the process.

The strategy also has environmental benefits: it will reduce carbon emissions, and eradicate spillages and the illegal dumping of coal by hauliers.

By land or by sea

To get the coal from Mpumalanga or KwaZulu-Natal to power-generating facilities around the country, Eskom uses more than 2 000 trucks over a road network of about 3 200km. The average distance travelled by the utility’s coal transportation trucks is 600 000km per day.

According to Singh, the single biggest challenge for road coal transport is the increased operator and public safety risk.

“Coal road transport shares the road infrastructure with the general population, and coal road transport has a higher risk of accidents than other forms of transport. This risk increases exponentially as the vehicle numbers increase,” he said. “There is also a backlog of road maintenance on national and provincial roads, which can partly be attributed to budget inadequacy, but is exacerbated by increased heavy haul road transportation and overloading.”

The dangers of road travel are numerous, but so are the dangers of transporting coal by sea. Ocean transport is still the main method of moving commodities like coal between countries. Obviously, where possible, rail transport is preferable. But it isn’t always possible.

Ocean transport comes with its own set of challenges. For example, one of the biggest problems with coal is its ability to self-heat, emit flammable gases, corrode, or deplete oxygen levels.

In 2010, an Indonesian ship carrying coal caught alight. In this case, the shippers had provided a declaration indicating that the cargo was not considered likely to emit significant amounts of methane nor spontaneously combust.

But, although the temperature of the cargo had been monitored during loading operations, the loaded cargo was not trimmed — it was left in a cone formation. The vessel’s hatches were also left open, and remained open for a number of days. This meant that the cargo was exposed to air circulation/penetration and the cargo subsequently heated, causing a fire on-board the ship.

It seems there are benefits and challenges to each mode of transport. The best one is highly reliant on the type of commodity being moved and the conditions restricting that movement, that is, the distance — whether or not there is an ocean to cross.


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