Driving a long-distance freight train ‘blind’

Train drivers working for Transnet Freight Rail must frequently stop their trains at rail intersections, get out, walk along the line to physically inspect the positioning of the tracks at that moment, phone the traffic control centre to report the positioning – and wait for authorisation to continue the trip.

This can happen multiple times on each long-distance trip and delays the delivery of cargo by up to 20 minutes every time.


Listen/read: Rail disruptions cut South African coal exports to 1992 level

A trip to deliver coal from Ermelo in the Mpumalanga coal fields to the coal export harbour in Richards Bay that used to take nine hours can now take double that.

“If there are 50 intersections, you must stop 50 times,” says John Pereira, deputy general secretary of the transport union Untu.

Pereira used to be a train driver himself.

This state of affairs is the result of cable theft all over the country that paralyses the signalling system and leaves the train control officers ‘blind’. They cannot see where every train is and depend on the information that drivers phone in to control the rail traffic and prevent accidents.

Heightened risk of fatigue

These working conditions demand dramatically more concentration from drivers working 12-hour shifts, who often fail to reach their destination before the end of their shift.

“It’s like driving in heavy mist for 12 hours non-stop,” says Pereira.

Following a collision between two trains carrying coal from Mpumalanga to Richards Bay on Sunday, 14 January, Pereira explained the conditions train drivers and staff in control centres must deal with when the signalling system isn’t working.

Read: Transnet trains collide, shutting SA’s coal export line

According to Pereira, cable theft is a regular occurrence.

“Sometimes they do repairs today and tomorrow the cables are stolen again. I know of one instance where the cable was buried two metres underground and a concrete slab poured on top, but even that did not prevent a recurrence.”

The collision is still being investigated and Untu is waiting for the report before commenting on the event. It is not yet clear whether it also occurred after cables had been stolen and communication disrupted.

Read: SA’s out-of-control copper theft problem

Pereira says staff in the control centre cannot see where each train is. They cannot use signals to indicate to train drivers whether they must stop or if they may proceed. Train drivers must phone in their positions and get manual authorisation before they can continue their journey.

In the control centre the last position of each train is recorded in a register. “They tell me they easily fill a book a day with the number of authorisations they give.”

Staff in the control room can record on their computers which section of the railway line the train is on – but not the exact position.

If there is no cell phone reception, a manager at the closest depot along the line must get into their vehicle and physically drive out to determine the position of the train and give the driver authorisation to proceed.

“That can take two to three hours,” says Pereira.


But at least this doesn’t happen too often, he adds.

Slowing down the economy

Under normal conditions a driver can travel 60-70km per hour on a long-distance route, but under these trying conditions they must, according to the rules, travel at such a speed that they can stop timeously if they suddenly see an obstacle on the tracks.

As a result, the trains sometimes move as slowly as 8km an hour.

“Remember, that is not a wheelbarrow. When you activate the brake it may take up to one kilometre before it comes to a standstill, especially the longer trains,” says Pereira.

“Normally one could have sat back and had a chat, but now you have to focus.

“The driver must concentrate from the start to the finish. When we get onto that metal machine, there is no time for games.”

Read: Sasol: Transnet’s logistics failings a ‘risk to our business’

An added problem is the unreliability of locomotives. The frequent stops at intersections result in more wear and tear.

“Remember, it is iron on iron. Transnet Freight Rail is trying to find solutions, but nevertheless, they sometimes fail.”

Pereira says it is inevitable the risk of collisions and derailments would increase under such conditions, and Untu members are concerned about it. The drivers and their controllers are frustrated. “They have a system in front of them that doesn’t work.”

Untu tries to mitigate the risk by negotiating for enough downtime for drivers and ensuring that they never work longer than 12 hours continuously.

Listen to this Moneyweb@Midday podcast with Jeremy Maggs and Gavin Kelly of the Road Freight Association (or read the transcript here):

You can also listen to this podcast on iono.fm here.

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Source: moneyweb.co.za