London - South Africa’s coal exports in the fourth quarter have surged to a projected 21 million tonnes, only slightly less than the entire first half, due to radically improved performance by rail operator Transnet, exporter and transport sources said.
Annualised, the figures are equivalent to 84 million tonnes a year, 20 million tonnes more than the country exported in all of 2010, a level which reflects the actual export capacity of the Richards Bay Coal Terminal (RBCT).
The bottleneck in South African exports over the past several years has been rail rather than mine or port capacity.
South Africa exported 7.4 million tonnes in October from RBCT, 5.2 million tonnes in November and is scheduled to ship 6.2 million tonnes in December.
“Transnet didn’t have the best start to the year; first-half exports suggested a total figure of less than 55 million for the year as a whole but they’ve exceeded everybody’s expectations in the past few months,” one exporter said.
“We caught some of the producers off-guard, some of the guys weren’t prepared but they’ve caught up now,” one rail source said.
“Probably we’ll do 67 million tonnes in the current fiscal year to April, 66 million in the calendar year 2011, and be back above 70 million next year even allowing for losses due to minor problems,” he said.
Between January and June, the country exported 27 million tonnes and seemed set for a year of record low exports before Transnet’s summer turnaround in railing rates.
Transnet ought to be able to sustain a rate of 1.6 million tonnes a week of coal moved to RBCT, the sources said.
In October, Transnet CEO Brian Molefe said the company expected to keep up the higher pace and was also exploring options to move more coal to alternative ports to RBCT to ensure more shipments go out.
Transnet last month began shifting to a scheduled railway service instead of trains departing only when loaded to improve efficiency.