10km of railway track stolen in a single night?

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Read Paddy Hartdegen’s thoughts on this matter.

It’s bad enough that cable thieves are stealing copper cables everywhere and selling these cables to crooked scrapmetal merchants at bargain basement prices.  Or that other thieves are stealing support cables for make pipelines that are suspended across valley in different parts of the country.

Now thieves have are targeting railway lines are owned and maintained by Transnet or by various or privately owned organisations.  The Ekurhuleni Municipality says that it estimates the cost of replacing stolen tracks on the railway line runs that runs from Transnet to a railway carriage repair depot in Nigel is R25-million.

Thieves slole about 10km of track on that line and Thumbu Mahlangu, the Ekurhuleni Member of the Mayoral Committee believes that the thieves are part of a highly organised gang of professional thieves.

He expects that Transnet will pay to replace the tracks so that the carriage repair company – that keeps trains running for commuters around Gauteng predominantly – will be able to continue functioning.

The Commuter Transport and Locomotive Engineering (CTLE) depot, formerly known as Union Carriage and Wagon is responsible for doing the repairs but if the wagons and coaches cannot get to them, the company comes to a standstill.

At the moment there are 34 carriages stuck inside the repair shop and they will remain there until Transnet can replace the railway line but, as Transnet said, at its own media briefing, how is it possible for a railway company to effectively police every kilometre of track on the vast network that it own and runs and pay for tracks that are stolen.

Already Transnet says it is employing upwards of 700 security personnel to try and curb thefts and deploy sophisticated CCTV cameras and alarm systems to try and nab thieves in high-risk areas.  But thieves seem to be able to remove the tracks – up to 10km at a time – in a single night to do this they must be backed by a pretty sophisticated transport network of their own to move the rails from where they are to the scrapmetal dealer who is selling stolen, steel to willing buyers elsewhere in the world.

The weight of the steel stolen in this 10km section is at least 960 tons.  Now a man with a squadron of bakkies is not going to move that amount of steel in a single operation. Moreover, the value of the stolen steel is just R2,6-million, a little more than 10% of the replacement cost of R25-million.

CTLE’s Human Resources Executive, Thembaletu Fikizolo is distraught because he says how can the business continue to pay wages to workers when the company cannot dispatch the repaired coaches and get paid for the work its done.

“Our business is in danger of going belly-up,” he told The Star in an interview shortly after the theft was discovered.

Well guess what, it’s not only CTLE’s business that is threatened but many other businesses who provide support services to it or that use the same line to deliver goods to other manufacturers in other parts of the East Rand where so many major industrial operations are sited.

There is some confusion of who actually owns the line that runs from Transnet’s depot to CTLE’s repair shop because Transnet says that the line is privately owned while Fikizolo says Transnet owns it.

However, if you start extrapolating the theft of railway tracks in other areas of the country that rely more and more on rail freight as Transnet tries to recapture market share, the potential consequences become quite horrifying.

All the small agricultural towns that have been encouraged to switch to rail transport are targets for rail theft; as are the sidings in and around the industrial areas of our cities.  The mining companies that export coal via the Richards Bay Coal Terminal are in danger and even the cement companies that produce urgently needed cement required to build every building in South Africa are at risk because without rails, you have no trains.

And if thieves are capable of lifting and shifting 960 tons of steel in the space of a single night, then this is a major criminal operation at work.

Perhaps, like Eskom and Telkom, the use of technology is required to make it more difficult to steal rails but this comes at a huge cost.

What is needed is a effective and determined policing to smash those scrapmetal networks that are selling the steal and exporting it via our own ports and harbours.

Getting to the distributors is the key because if you remove the people who buy illegal scrap metal then the market crumbles.  But how can that be achieved? In simple terms it can’t because there are criminals everywhere and if you close down one operation, another springs up in its place within a week.

So there’s another challenge for engineers in South Africa: find a way to make it impossible (or very, very, difficult) to remove railway tracks. Someone with a bright idea someone can probably find a way to create the necessary deterrents that prevent this kind of national sabotage.

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Crown Publications, one of South Africa’s largest business-to-business publishing houses, came into existence in 1986. Since then, the company has grown from producing a single magazine, Electricity SA (renamed Electricity+Control), to publishing six monthly magazines, three quarterlies, and a number of engineering handbooks.