Railway container trucks ordered to ship coal first

Updated: 2008-02-03 11:38

China has mobilized all its railway container trucks to ensure power coal transport. Their only other use is to be for moving relief materials so as to ease the power constraints plaguing the country's snow-ravaged central, southern and eastern regions, the Ministry of Railway said on Saturday.

The latest ministry figures revealed more than 42,200 container trucks loaded with power coal on Friday, a rise of 12,000 from the previous day, a new record.

The line between Datong in coal producing province of Shanxi and Qinhuangdao, a port city in Hebei Province, a railway which is exclusively used for heavily-loaded coal transport trains, also set a new daily freight record of 1 million tons.

The unprecedented rush for coal power transport came after China's cabinet installed an emergency command center on Friday morning to coordinate contingency measures for coal, oil and power supply, and transport and disaster relief in the country's snow-hit regions.

About half the country's cargo trains, some 300,000 in all, are railway container trucks for the transport of such staple goods as minerals, building materials, timber and steel products.

The Railway Ministry didn't say when the order would be stopped. Sources close to the command center, however, said what ensues over the next 14 days will be "a tense national encounter" against power coal shortage.

The State Electricity Regulatory Commission warned on Monday that coal reserves stood at a little more than 21 million tons, less than half of normal. Nearly 90 power plants, which accounted for more than 10 percent of the national gross installed capacity, had less than three days of coal reserve. Many regions had suffered blackouts for hours.

Recognizing coal supply as a crucial part in fighting against snow disaster, Chinese President Hu Jintao entered a mine more than 400 meters underground in Datong on Thursday, giving a pep talk to local workers and administrators. "Disaster-hit areas need coal and the power plants need coal," he said.

To remedy the severe situation, the Railway Ministry has started a daily video-telephone meeting on Friday to adjust transport arrangements in a timely fashion to send power coal to where it is needed most.

The worst-hit Hunan, Hubei, Jiangxi, Sichuan and Guizhou provinces have been put under close scrutiny. Hunan's Chenzhou, for instance, has been cut off from power and water over the past eight days, leaving thousands of households dark and cold. The cities of Hengyang and Yongzhou have also experienced periodic blackouts.

As the Beijing-Guangzhou Railway is currently under pressure from passenger transport, the Railway Ministry urged cargo trains to take roundabout routes to deliver the coal as quickly as possible.

All railway bureaus are required to submit daily reports upgrading their power coal transport volume, local power coal stockpiles and consumption, ministry sources said.

At an overnight emergency meeting held within the command center, delegates from 23 Party governmental departments, including traffic, public security, finance, health care and information, as well as armed forces and energy giants, shared and analyzed the latest developments in power coal supply.

Some 83 percent of key state-owned coal mines are set to keep production during the Spring Festival, the State Administration of Working Safety (SAWS) told a press conference on Saturday, and that number is expect to reach 90 percent.

Shandong Province responded on Saturday by requiring all its major coal producers, about 100 in total, to continue production during the seven-day Spring Festival holiday that begins on Wednesday.

Major coal producer Shanxi, which shipped 87 percent of its 2007 output (550 million tons) outside the province, requested all state-owned collieries to keep up production during the festival.

In response, Datong-based Tongmei Company Group decided to shorten its Spring Festival holiday to a single day, while Shanxi Coking Coal Group lowered its coal consumption for metallurgy and supplied 60 percent of its coal output to power plants.

The centrally-administered Shenhua Group, the country's largest coal distributor boasting a 1,369-kilometer rail line with a transport capacity of 128 million tons, decided to operate its 54 collieries at full steam during the festival. It awarded workers extra bonus and tripled their overtime payment as required by law.

A Shenhua executive said the company's February output would be 20.2 million tons, up 12 percent from January's 18 million tons.

SAWS figure showed the January coal output hit 185 million tons, up 3.1 percent year on year.

General manager Li Xiaopeng of Huaneng Group, the country's largest power generator, said the constraints of power coal supply were easing gradually, but several of its power plants had coal reserves unable to last one more week.

Ma Kai, National Development and Reform Commission minister, recognized power coal supply as "an issue of national significance". He urged relevant departments to seize on the subdued passenger traffic during the Spring Festival to replenish the coal reserves of power plants to rational levels.

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