Richards Bay terminal. Picture: BLOOMBERG
Richards Bay terminal. Picture: BLOOMBERG

Richards Bay Coal Terminal, the third-largest facility of its kind in the world, hopes to set a fresh export record this year as a R1.3bn equipment replacement programme comes to an end, freeing up storage space and improving efficiency.

In 2017, the terminal notched up a number of records in the volume of coal it received by rail from the inland coalfields in Mpumalanga and the tonnages put on ships for buyers in Asia, Europe and Africa. Coal exports are a larger earner of foreign currency for SA than gold.

The terminal notched up its best exports yet of 76.47-million tonnes despite unusually adverse weather closing the port for 38 days during the year and a programme to replace two of four machines that load coal onto ships, as well as losing 5% of yard space to build new stacking and reclaiming machines. The machines will be commissioned by April 2019.

The terminal handled 907 ships last year, sending 81% of SA’s coal to Asia, with India the largest buyer, importing 36-million tonnes, followed by Pakistan and South Korea each taking between 8-million and 9-million tonnes. Europe accounted for 10% of SA’s exports and African countries 8%.

The previous record was in 2015 with exports of 75.4-million tonnes. A year later and exports dropped to 72.6-million tonnes as demand for thermal coal slowed.

Transnet Freight Rail also had a strong performance, delivering 75.6-million tonnes, the highest since operations began in 1976 with just 12-million tonnes.

Alan Waller, CE of the terminal which is owned by 18 coal-mining companies, said management was hoping for exports of 77-million tonnes of coal this year, edging closer to the
81-million tonnes of capacity Transnet has on its coal route.

Transnet uses 287 locomotives and 8,000 wagons to send an average of 27 trains a day to the terminal, which has an installed capacity of 91-million tonnes and the potential to get to 110-million tonnes.

The absolute capacity of the terminal would be 110-million tonnes, terminal chairwoman Nosipho Siwisa-Damasane said.

The facility is on a spit of land edged by the sea on one side and the port and harbour on the other two. It is linked to Richards Bay by a thin strip of land.

The terminal can handle  32 trains a day to meet the  91-million tonnes capacity, but during 2017 this number increased by as much as  38 trains in a day, Waller said.

A 4-million tonne export facility had been set aside at the terminal for junior coal miners, but in the past two years the 13 junior companies using the facility exported less than 2-million tonnes a year, Waller said.

The terminal, Transnet Freight Rail, Transnet National Port Authority, junior miners and the Department of Mineral Resources have set up a task team to decide on allocations to the 4-million tonne capacity.