Puffed out – Africa’s new railways risk going the way of the old ones
Jun 4th 2016 Economist
The railway station at Lubumbashi, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s second city and the centre of its mining trade, has seen better days. Outside the 1920s Belgian-built whitewashed station, hawkers sell bus tickets south to Zambia and South Africa. Travellers would do much better buying one than going inside—trains in Congo are not for the faint-hearted.
In the ticket hall, standing by a timetable on a blackboard, Baudouin Kalubi, the station master, explains that the next train will depart the following morning to Kindu, about 1,600km (1,000 miles) north. From there passengers can get on buses towards the Congo river. The train is, Mr Kalubi proudly explains, an express, with a new Chinese locomotive. That means it should go at an average speed of 15kph. “It is not the TGV,” he admits, referring to France’s high-speed trains. Yet in Congo there are so few roads that if you can’t afford to fly, the train is all that is left.
Over the past half-century, Africa’s mostly colonial railways have mostly atrophied. According to the International Union of Railways, in 2014 sub-Saharan African trains carried about 158 billion tonne-kilometres of freight, or roughly half of what Australia’s railways carried. Of that, 84% was in South Africa, which has a modern network. Elsewhere, railways that built nations carry a fraction of what they did even in the 1980s.
To remedy this, many African countries are investing vast sums of money—and hope—in new lines. In Kenya a Chinese firm is building one roughly alongside the route of the old track. Another project connects Djibouti’s port to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. Still more are proposed. Rwanda wants one going through Tanzania; Uganda wants one going to Sudan; others are planned in Nigeria, Guinea and Ghana. Yet there is reason to worry that the new lines will end up much like the old.
The Kenyan project is perhaps the most ambitious. Unlike the old line, which is on a 1,067mm gauge, the new railway is built to a modern “standard gauge” (1,435mm), which ought to increase capacity. Travellers on the ancient British-era passenger trains, which run three times a week from Nairobi to Mombasa, now have their view of the elephants of Tsavo National Park impeded by an enormous embankment for the new line. The idea is that it will carry as much as half of the cargo unloaded at the port of Mombasa, or about ten times as much as the current railway shifts.