Transnet says it has been forced to activate a clause rendering its rail operations blameless for an act of economic sabotage that has made the coal line to Richards Bay inoperable.

The company said in a statement on Friday that an incident that led to both coal lines to Richards Bay being closed was the result of “an act of economic sabotage” after it was discovered that one of the lines had been severed using a blow torch.

A 200-strong wagon, carrying approximately 16,600 tonnes of coal to the export terminal, approached the rupture just outside Richards Bay early on Thursday morning. The locomotive and most of the wagons passed the rupture without incident, but 51 of the wagons towards the back of the train derailed and 49 of these fell on their side, spilling coal and rendering both lines inoperable.

Fortunately, both the locomotive driver and his assistant were not injured in the incident.

“This is a first and it is a frightening development,” said Transnet spokesperson Mike Asefowitz. “We are hoping to re-open one line tomorrow but we have had to declare a force majeure with the coal export parties.”

A force majeure is a formal declaration by a company declaring that factors outside of its control have prevented it from fulfilling contractual obligations to clients for which it can pay penalties.

Asefowitz says demand for coal is quite high at the moment and typically the line would have 16 trains running a day.