Transnet train. (Reference image by Transnet SOC).

South Africa’s Transnet SOC Ltd. said extortion and violent acts significantly disrupted efforts to clear a train derailment on a coal export line as the country increasingly sends more of the fuel to Europe.

The state-owned company has declared force majeure on the North Corridor route that runs to the Richards Bay Coal Terminal. After the derailment occurred on Nov. 8, the company planned to meet with community leaders to diffuse tensions with what it described as disgruntled parties seeking business opportunities.

Instead, a group known as the Ulundi Business Forum demanded contracts, the company said in a statement late Friday. “Transnet rejected this demand and the Forum resorted to violence, which included assault, blocking access roads and the discharging of a firearm,” it said. “Transnet condemns these acts and will be laying charges of violence, tampering with essential infrastructure and extortion.”

Work has since resumed and once the line is cleared a determination can be made over the return of normal operations, the company said in an emailed update on Saturday.

The incident marks another obstacle for Transnet and South African coal miners who depend on the line. The company declared force majeure due to a wage strike last month as well as events including riots in the KwaZulu-Natal province in July 2021, a cyber attack that incapacitated its container terminal, and a fire that disrupted bulk shipments.

Coal exports to Europe from a consortium of producers that own the Richards Bay Coal Terminal rose eight-fold in the first half of the year from 500,000 tons in 2021, according to Thungela Resources Ltd., the nation’s biggest shipper of thermal coal. “Thungela is engaging with Transnet Freight Rail to understand what the impact may be,” a spokeswoman said in response to emailed questions.

In order to mitigate the impact of the disruption to the North Corridor, Transnet said it will temporarily divert some critical shipments like chemicals, via the mainline between Durban and Gauteng.

(By Paul Burkhardt)

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