South African train operators driving “blind”

Rampant cable theft has damaged South Africa’s railway signalling systems to the extent that train operators are effectively forced to operate “blindly”, necessitating frequent stops at railway transfer stations and manual phone-ins to avoid train collisions.

That is according to a report from Sunday newspaper Rapport, which recently spoke to United National Transport Union deputy secretary John Pereira.

The report comes after two of Transnet’s trains derailed outside Richards Bay along South Africa’s main coal export line on Sunday, 14 January 2024.

A former train operator himself, Pereira explained that the frequent theft of cables along South Africa’s railway lines often took the train signalling system offline.

Consequently, train control officers (TCOs)  in the centralised traffic control centre (CTC) cannot see the specific location of each train and cannot notify operators whether it is safe to proceed or whether they must stop when they arrive at an interchange.

Therefore, train operators must regularly stop trains at these locations, get out and investigate the position of the railways, and call in to the CTC to get approval to continue on their route.

The train’s last position is handwritten into a register.

Pereira said TCOs regularly fill out entire books in a day as they try to keep track of trains’ last positions.

Pereira said a trip between Ermelo in Mpumalanga and Richards Bay in KwaZulu-Natal that typically lasted nine hours would now take over double that time.

That is because each stop can take about 20 minutes, provided the machinist has cellphone signal.

On the rare occasion that they are unable to communicate to the CTC due to no reception, the stop could add another two to three hours to the total trip time.

In these cases, a trajectory manager at the closest depot next to the railway must drive to the train’s location and issue the operator with an approval number before they can proceed.

In addition, the train must also drive very slowly — around 8km/h — to be able to brake in time if they observe any potential dangers on the track.

In the past, Pereira said machinists could chat and relax for much of the trip. Now, they have to concentrate on the journey from start to finish.

Cable theft severely impacting Transnet’s revenue

Transnet Freight Rail (TFR) has been completely crippled by cable theft, which costs it well 1,000km of cables every year.

The number of cable theft incidents has surged drastically over the past few years, climbing from 1,598 cases in 2018 to 5,506 in 2022.

The incidents have pushed up expenditure on cable replacements and security and taken a bite out of Transnet’s revenue.

TFR’s revenue has declined by R44.6 billion to R34.8 billion in the last three years, with cable theft partially to blame for the big hit.

The issue is so severe that Transnet launched a dedicated section on its website reporting weekly cable theft statistics.

The chart below from Daily Investor shows how much cable theft has cost Transnet since 2018.

The revenue decline was among the factors behind the resignations of Transnet CEO Portia Derby and Nonkulelo Dlamini in late 2023.

Mining companies and labour unions want a turnaround at Transnet because the issues have seen shipments of resources like coal and iron ore plummeting, limiting profit and threatening jobs.

Derby’s adjustments — including a shake-up in security strategy, shrinking the 20,000km freight rail network and using more diesel-powered trains to avoid electricity problems — did not prove successful in curbing the theft.

The chart below from Bloomberg shows how Transnet’s rail volumes declined between the 2022 and 2023 financial years.

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South African train operators driving “blind”