Revelations have emerged of Vale Logistics Limited, investors in the $1.2 billion (about K600 billion) railway line from Moatize to Nacala in Mozambique through Malawi, backtracking from its initial assessment and design to reinforce 17 bridges along the railway line.
Instead, Vale, the Brazilian investor, has ordered its contractors, Mota-Engil, to ‘ignore’ the prescribed safety measures and proceed with an option that the Malawi Institution of Engineers (MIE) fears may compromise the quality of the bridges—thereby risking lives, property, money and the structures’ lifespan.
They are also changes that the Ministry of Transport and Public Infrastructure said in a written response on Friday, government is not aware of and that they may not be justifiable.
The professional differences between Vale and Mota-Engil have brought tensions between the firms, with the latter seemingly worried about the dangers of the compromise and the former growing impatient with Mota-Engil’s insistence on recommended specifications.
Part of the communication we have seen shows that Mota-Engil was contacted by Vale’s consultants, SRK Consulting of South Africa on April 30 2014, rejecting proposals for strengthening some bridges.
“The engineer acknowledges receipt of your above proposal [concrete strengthening 53 feet concrete bridge-design note] and wishes to respond as follows:
“Further to a design of the concrete bridges, strengthening of the deck is not required for bridges 36-44, 47-50 and 52-54. Therefore, your proposal is no longer necessary,” wrote Jon Middleton, Nacala Corridor project director.
Further communication we have seen also shows instructions to abolish strengthening for concrete bridges except for one, bridge number 46.
Mota-Engil raised a query in one of the communication on the proposed abolishment of plate reinforcement on all bridges, a direct defiance to previous site instruction number 0952 as forecasted by another Vale consultant, Aurecon Design, to reinforce all bridges.
Vale Logistics is responsible for the construction of the line from Chikwawa up to Nkaya junction, called the Greenfield stretch.
It is also responsible for the rehabilitation of a 99-kilometre line from Nkaya junction to Nayuchi, code-named Brownfield stretch.
A source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the bridges, two of which are made from steel, may collapse from the heavy sleepers being replaced for the railway line, weight and traffic from the Moatize coalfields expected to pass through it from Mozambique once the line opens next month.
The source said this would endanger the lives of commercial users and surrounding communities.
Bridges across Shire and Rivirirvi rivers are the two biggest of the 17, measuring 112 metres and 170 metres, respectively.
The source, an engineer by profession, told The Nation that government learnt with shock that the investor decided to prescribe orders contrary to the initial agreement.
But in a written response to a questionnaire, Vale Logistics said two weeks ago that it is not in the habit of compromising standards.
Said Vale: “Vale is a company with global operations and in all its activities, seeks to act in accordance with the standards of excellence and safety practices in all its dimensions—people, projects, equipment and environment.”
Without confirming whether it issued the directive to scrap re-enforcements from the initial design to Mota-Engil, Vale said its goal was more than transporting its own product as it also aims to create a logistics solution of other cargo in the country.
It adds: “Vale believes that this investment is supporting the development of infrastructure in Malawi.”
A visit by The Nation to zone five of the project in Liwonde two weeks ago found workers from Mota-Engil placing sleepers along the track at Shire River, a 40-year-old structure whose scrapped side walls and unmaintained grounds betrayed its age.
Meanwhile, the structure continued to endure the extensive drilling, compacting, shoving and pulling from sophisticated machinery; thereby exerting more pressure on an already frail zone.
Our sources said the addition of new materials to old ones exacerbated the safety risks, with the possibility of expediting the process of collapse sooner than later.
Said the source: “This bridge was designed to withstand up to 16 tonnes per axle. With the expected new cargo of charcoal wagons to cross over the railway line, there will be an increase to 20.5 tonnes per axle.
“In essence, there will be no relation between the strength of the bridge to added weight and new materials to old ones. It is a recipe for disaster.”
The source said the lifespan of the Shire Bridge, for instance, was predicated at seven years with the proposed reinforcement, but would be much less now without the recommended fortifications.
Mota-Engil Malawi refused to comment on the matter, with its managing director Jose Dinis Da Silva saying: “We don’t discuss contractual issues with our clients in the media.”
In a written response to a questionnaire on Friday, Principal Secretary (II) in the Ministry Transport and Public Infrastructure Rexie Chiluzi said government was not aware of any proposed changes from the original agreement.
Said Chiluzi: “First of all, let me state that once an agreement is made, it is binding and to the best of my knowledge, government has not discussed anything to that effect; and as such government is not aware of any changes to the initial plan on reinforcement of bridges.”
He noted that a design review is made for various reasons and is normal in engineering processes, but pointed out that government is not aware of such a review.
Chiluzi said should there be need for further review, instructions will be given accordingly.
Asked whether Vale has contravened any contractual obligations, Chiluzi said: “At this point in time, we cannot say that Vale is in breach of contract because government is not aware of any changes to the initial plan. But considering that Vale will be moving about 18 million tons per year, which is a heavy load, Vale will see to it that the section structures are adequately maintained,” he said.
On his part, MIE president Andrew Thawe said every construction project is supposed to go according to approved designs.
Said Thawe: “To abandon approved designs is shocking to hear. We object to Vale’s decision as it cannot proceed outside the agreement. We were not aware of this development and we intend to assemble a team to look into it.”