New crane improves options for cornered coal terminal

Dec 3, 2003
Author: P&S

Frustration over the inability of Spoornet to deliver sufficient coal to the port of Durban as per contract had a sequel this weekend with the arrival in port of the heavylift ship Happy Ranger, carrying a container gantry crane destined for the Bluff Mechanical Appliances (BMA).

The crane, which was purchased as scrap from the Cape Town Container Terminal, will be used to provide another set of options to the Durban coal terminal, which has been in business since the early 1900s but faces an uncertain future.

The terminal is currently operated by the Bidvest Group on a 30-year lease dating from 1988, which includes a clause with Transnet for the delivery, via Spoornet, (one of Transnet’s subsidiaries), of up to 3.5 million tonnes of coal annually. At present however, Spoornet is hard pressed to manage 1.5mt each year and because of this a number of small coal mines in Mpumalanga and Northern KwaZulu Natal, including several with strong Black Economic Empowerment interests, face having to go out of business because they are denied access to export markets.

The BMA in Durban is already losing between one and two ships a month to Matola (Maputo) because of Spoornet’s delivery problems.

Spoornet touts an alternative route through the port of Richards Bay although it has historically been difficult for small coal producers to gain access to either the Richards Bay coal line or the Richards Bay Coal Terminal because of volume requirements and cost factors.

The only other alternative remains the port of Matola near Maputo in Mozambique but even here Spoornet is also reluctant to deliver and where it has, as with Durban, announced huge tariff increases.

Despite being contractually obliged Spoornet maintains it doesn’t have spare capacity on either the Natal main line or the Maputo Corridor, citing a shortage of wagons and locomotives. This hasn’t prevented the rail company from steadily increasing the tariff to uneconomical levels (30 % in 2002 and another 18 % in the near future), which it justifies on the grounds of having previously cross-subsidised under-rated coal deliveries.

Frustrated coal producers argue that while tariffs rise, the rail service deteriorates.

Spoornet also blames previous management for not having failed to upgrade rail equipment. At the same time it ignores the thousands of derelict rail wagons lying abandoned in Spoornet sidings, which it claims cannot be repaired. Instead these are being cut up and exported as scrap.

For the coal producers this means either having to find alternative methods of transporting coal to the port, i.e. by road over an already overburdened road system, or going out of business.

For the BMA, sitting with a 30-year lease dating from 1988 in its pocket, in which Transnet agreed to deliver 3.5mt of coal annually (rising to 5mt as per demand), the answer seems obvious – if you cannot deliver coal, then allow us to handle other products.

Alternatively, says the BMA, if Spoornet insists on delivering coal to Richards Bay only, then the BMA should be permitted to develop an equivalent facility at that port.

Which is where the container crane from Cape Town enters the picture. The BMA intends rebuilding and refurbishing the crane at a cost of between R12 and R15 million to handle a variety of products, including coal.

To this end the crane, as with a second crane acquired earlier from the Durban Container Terminal and which has since been refurbished and placed in service, will be used for handling coal using a rotating container spreader that can pick up a loaded 6m container and rotate it through 180 degrees in order to empty it into the ship’s hold.

But the crane also makes it possible to load other bulk cargo with its rotating spreader, or discharge bulk cargo using a 20 cubic metre hydraulic grab, in addition to loading or unloading general cargo using special attachments for coils, bulk bags and oversize loads.

The crane will be refurbished at the Bluff over the next year or so and can later be transferred to Richards Bay if necessary, or placed in service along the Bluff wharves. With the ability to handle a variety of cargo, from steel to granite, coal to containers, the opportunities are there, provided Transnet, through its port and rail authorities, makes it possible.

As one example, the Bluff is quite well suited to become a small container terminal – perhaps one that specialises in ships that are otherwise difficult to handle because of poor design and cumbersome ships gear, thus assisting the existing container terminal with problematic cargoes. A type of ‘boutique’ container terminal.

As with every business, port management has to fight for its business, but Durban is a diverse port with many advantages that can be turned to additional benefit – perhaps with the right vision the BMA site can become one of those.

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