Three new Chinese locomotives under the DC wires at Beaconsfield in June 2014 Photo: P J Odell

New Chinese-built electric locomotives are now working test trains on South African railways.

Eventually 100 of the dual voltage class 20E locos will be used on freight trains for Transnet Freight Rail.

They will haul manganese and iron ore trains from one of the world’s largest opencast mines, run by AngloAmerican at Sishen, 150 miles north west of Kimberley, to Port Elizabeth on the Indian Ocean.

The first 10 locomotives were built in China by the Zhuzhou Electric Locomotive Company, a subsidiary of China's leading train manufacturer, the China South Locomotive and Rolling Stock Corporation.

CSR which also makes high speed trains for the Chinese market, delivered the first locomotives to Durban Harbour in November and December last year.

The contract is Zhuzhou’s largest single foreign order of electric locomotives.

The remaining locomotives are to be built in South Africa by a consortium composed of CSR Zhuzhou and the South African black economic empowerment company Matsetse Basadi.

The locos have regenerative braking, a maximum speed of 60mph and are designed to work in multiple at the front, middle and rear of long freight trains.

They can be used on South Africa’s 3kV DC lines and also on the modern 25kV AC lines.

But railway workers report that the new locomotives need so much power that they are “tripping” all the sub stations.

South Africa is suffering from a general power shortage with frequent power cuts. It is building several coal-fired power stations to provide more power.

In the days of empire, South Africa bought most of its railway equipment from Britain.

More recently, Bombardier supplied 96 25kV Electrostar passenger coaches to the Gautrain 50 mile network around Johannesburg which was built to coincide with South Africa’s staging of the World Cup in 2010. The project also worked in conjunction with black empowerment partners.