Themba Mkhwanazi. Picture: SUPPLIED
Themba Mkhwanazi. Picture: SUPPLIED

SA’s iron ore miners have welcomed the earlier-than-expected reopening of their sole link to export markets via the port at Saldanha after Transnet fixed the 860km railway line ahead of schedule.

What could have been a month-long shutdown was cut to just nine days, winning rare plaudits from miners in the Northern Cape whose finances rest heavily on Transnet Freight Rail’s performance in moving millions of tons of iron ore and manganese to the coast.

"You are talking to a very impressed customer of Transnet right now," said Andre Joubert, CEO of JSE-listed African Rainbow Minerals’ ferrous division.

After the initial gloom that set in on hearing of the rail bridge badly damaged by a truck on November 28, Joubert said he was taken aback by the intense level of engagement by Transnet, which kept him appraised every six hours on progress to replace the bridge and return the line to full use.

By the time the first truck arrived in an emergency contingency plan to collect a load of manganese on the Monday after the accident, "Transnet already had its new, temporary bridge in place. Now that was a surprise," Joubert said.

While African Rainbow Minerals and its partner, JSE-listed Assore, expect full-year iron ore sales of 14.35-million tons, Joubert flagged the risk any further problems on the railway line would have for the partners. Stockpiles at the two mines African Rainbow Minerals and Assore run in a partnership called Assmang have reached capacity of about 2-million tons while iron ore stockpiles at the port, which have cushioned operational problems on the railway line this year, have almost been depleted.

"If there are any more delays or problems we will suffer directly. The next six months are very important for Transnet to operate at optimal levels," Joubert said. Transnet used the nine-day shutdown of the line to do maintenance it usually does in a 10-day shutdown at the end of the year. African Rainbow Minerals and others hope that by doing this work during the forced closure they will be able to replenish port stockpiles.

It was not only the bridge that Transnet repaired during the shutdown but also critical relationships with its customers.

"Pace and agility as well as experienced personnel resulted in positive partnerships which could be used in future events of similar nature," said Transnet chief business development officer Gert de Beer.

Kumba Iron Ore, SA’s leading source of the steel-making ingredient, welcomed the construction of the temporary bridge that was capable of coping with loaded iron-ore trains — among the world’s longest.

It has been a difficult year for Transnet on the line, with Kumba declaring force majeure on its supply contracts earlier in the year because of a number of derailments. Force majeure is a legal term companies invoke when something beyond their control prevents them from fulfilling a contract.

Transnet itself was forced to declare a force majeure at the end of November after a truck hit a railway bridge between Vredendal and Lutzville in the Western Cape, damaging the line and stopping traffic between the mines and the coast.