* Key coal railway rocked by landslides, warped tracks
* Route is major link in coking coal supply chain -analyst
* Disruptions have pushed prices sharply higher
* Track operator estimates repairs will take 5 weeks
(Recasts; adds comment from landslide witnesses, details on
force majeure declarations)
By Tom Westbrook and Sonali Paul
SYDNEY/MELBOURNE April 4 A critical mountain
pass on the railway connecting Australia's biggest coking coal
mines to ports has been hit by landslides and buckled tracks
caused by Cyclone Debbie, witnesses said, crippling efforts to
get exports of the steel-making ingredient flowing again.
A helicopter pilot and residents local to the choke point on
the Goonyella railway told Reuters by phone on Tuesday about
damage to the track, which last year transported nearly 120
million tonnes of coal for mining giants such as BHP Billiton
The line's operator, Aurizon Holdings, repeated
that it would take around five weeks to finish repairs and that
alternative routes would be considered, without giving details
on the extent of the damage.
"The rain came down the range like a river. (It) just washed
the rail lines out. I haven't seen anything like this in my 60
years here," said Dennis Wilson, a caravan park owner who lives
near the rail network.
Cyclone Debbie, which struck last week as a category four
storm, one rung below the most damaging category five, has left
a disaster zone stretching 1,000 km (600 miles) in the
northeastern sate of Queensland, with subsequent flooding
claiming at least four lives.
Queensland accounts for over 50 percent of global seaborne
supplies of steel-making material coking coal, with the
disruption driving up prices by over a quarter on
Monday in their biggest single-day jump on record.
Independent Australian mining analyst Peter Strachan said
the rail lines were a vital link in the world's coking coal
"I'd have thought the market might be taking too much of an
optimistic view of how bad it is and as the information starts
to seep out people will realise how long it's going to be,"
Between 12 and 15 million tonnes of coal shipments could be
affected by the cyclone, Mark Pervan, chief economist at AME
Group, said on Tuesday. Of that, about 10 million tonnes is
coking coal, accounting for 3 percent of the global market.
Three smaller producers in the region have already declared
force majeure on coal cargoes, partly blaming rail lines being
China's Yancoal Ltd has halted output at its
Middlemount mine, while privately owned QCoal said it could not
deliver two coal shipments "due to infrastructure availability".
Jellinbah Group, which owns two mines in the region's Bowen
Basin, said it had declared force majeure on some, but not all,
While floodwaters have receded from many areas, last week's
deluge is still flowing through river systems in Queensland. New
Zealand is bracing for heavy rain on Tuesday as the storm
crosses the Tasman Sea.
A railway engineer, who declined to be named because he was
not authorised to speak about the damaged tracks, said the land
needed to dry before repair crews could get heavy machinery to
the affected spots.
BHP, the world's top exporter of coking coal, said it would
"seek to manage ongoing access to ports and shipments to
The only alternative rail routes are to access lines heading
north or south. The southern route is in a region forecast to be
hit by further flooding this week, as levels in the major
Fitzroy River catchment, continue to rise.
(Reporting by Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY and Sonali Paul in
MELBOURNE; Additional reporting by Benjamin Weir; Writing by
Jonathan Barrett; Editing by Chris Reese and Joseph Radford)