Transnet Freight Rail runs the world's longest production trains between Sishen in the Northern Cape and Saldanha port 861km away. Picture: SUPPLIED
Transnet Freight Rail runs the world's longest production trains between Sishen in the Northern Cape and Saldanha port 861km away. Picture: SUPPLIED

Transnet Freight Rail (TFR) saved more than R1bn by successfully testing the world's longest train with the intention of serving growing demand from SA's manganese miners for access to export markets for the key steel ingredient, adding 1-million tons of extra capacity on its network.

SA has the world's largest manganese deposits and is a leading player in supplying the mineral to steel mills, but mining companies have long complained about limited rail capacity being the bottleneck on exports.

Transnet had looked at options of expanding capacity on the line between Hotazel and Port Elizabeth and introduce new rolling stock in an expensive programme. The use of the Sishen-to-Saldanha line with a mega-train meant a 90% saving worth more than R1bn.

Transnet was keen to address these concerns and exploit its existing infrastructure and rolling stock combined with enhanced technology to meet demands from the sector, said Lloyd Tobias, TFR's chief operating officer.

The September test with 375 wagons in a 4km-long train proved the concept that TFR could haul manganese in this configuration, topping the longest production train in the world, the 342-wagon iron-ore trains running on the same 861km Sishen-to-Saldanha line.

A train with this many wagons would haul 22,500 tons of manganese ore. The train would give TFR an extra 1-million tons a year of capacity, running 44 loads to Saldanha, which is primarily an iron-ore export facility.

"The project will maximise the manganese volumes railed between the mines in Hotazel via Sishen to Saldanha. This will be achieved by optimising the use of existing assets, locomotives and wagons, within the installed infrastructure constraints, doing more with what is currently available," Tobias said. 

The next step was to bring the train into operation and securing manganese ore to fill it now that the test work had proved successful, said Russell Baatjies, TFR's GM of the iron ore and manganese business unit.

The train was "meant to meet the needs of manganese customers within the Hotazel area and the emerging miners. This phase will include further customer engagements and official launch of the train," he said.

Transnet is using innovative ways to step up its share of manganese moving out of the Northern Cape to offshore markets and wants to capture the full 14-million tons transported to the coast every year, Gert de Beer, the parastatal’s chief business development officer, told Business Day in July. 

Transnet has upped its manganese capacity to 12.8-million tons a year from five-million tons a year in 2012 and is using almost all of SA’s ports served by its rail network, but the focus was on the Port Elizabeth and Saldanha harbours, both of which are at the end of heavy-haul lines, he said.

Transnet was targeting the 1.2-million tons that is hauled to harbour by road, De Beers said. It was increasing the use of container loading facilities at Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal, where bulk manganese ore is received, put into top-opening containers and railed to Durban or Richards Bay to be emptied into ships.

There are nine manganese companies Transnet wants to serve and it has signed long-term agreements with four, including Assmang — the company jointly owned by African Rainbow Minerals and Assore — South32, Tshipi, owned by Australia’s Jupiter Mines, and PMG Mining. Two more contracts are close to finalisation.

seccombea@businesslive.co.za