Sub-Saharan Africa: development by rail

With Chinese technical and financial backing, a number of countries – from Tanzania to Angola, from Kenya to Ethiopia, from Nigeria to Ghana – are modernising their railroads and building new lines to move both people and goods more efficiently.


The railway system in Africa is undergoing a rebirth. From east to west and from north to south, old and new railway networks are linking up to speed up the transport of goods and people, making it more practical and comfortable.


Many states are opening new lines and renovating old ones from ‘high-speed’ trains in eastern Africa to the connections soon to be opened in western and southern Africa. Rail transport has now become a fundamental factor. It is essential both to the economies of single African states, continually growing and in need of infrastructure, and to the economies of foreign states especially those interested in the raw materials of the continent. All this has given rise to a rather ambitious policy of rail transport.


Tanzania is building two railway lines that will more efficiently connect the commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, with the western and southern regions. Around 420 kilometres of rails will join Dar es Salaam with the city of Morogoro and the capital Dodoma. The Tanzanian government is also planning a new line from the coastal city of Mtwara, on the banks of the Indian Ocean, to the banks of Lake Malawi, close to the locality of Mbamba Bay.


Also Uganda, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Burundi want to have adequate railways. All these are countries, with the exception of the DRC, with no outlet to the sea and with large deposits of natural resources that could be commercialised better. Towards the south-west, in Angola (1,246,000 km²), an old railway project has been resurrected after a standstill of 34 years when, last year in March, the Benguela Railway began to function again.


Competition in the eastern part of the continent is fierce. Kenya inaugurated on 31 May 2017, the first section of the high-speed line which is intended to connect with bordering countries like Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia.


Another equally important project, carried out first by the French between 1894 and 1917, became operative on 1 January last year. Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, was again connected to the city of Djibouti, capital of the homonymous state. The line, built by the Chinese, runs straight for 756 Km. It is a true artery of transport for Ethiopia, cut off from the sea and hoping to have new outlets to it following the recent development of friendly relations with Eritrea.


On the other side of the continent, instead, the ‘Big Boss’ of railway transport (and other things) is still Vincent Bolloré, from Cameroon to Ivory Coast, from Mali to Benin, the French magnate intends, thanks to his company, to have a rail network connecting the capitals of the former French and English colonies of western Africa.

The basic project is called Blueline (not to be confused with the new Nigerian railway in the city) and has always been considered too Pharaonic by French and African newspapers. The idea would be to build a 3,000 km long railway through Abidjan (Ivory Coast), Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), Niamey (Niger), Cotonou (Benin), Lome (Togo) and Accra (Ghana).


Minerals are a considerable source of income for many west African countries and the train is the most efficient means of transport to keep up with the continually increasing of resources for export. Nevertheless, in this area the railway situation is much more fragmented. To date, there is no extended network capable of serving more than one state.


Among the more recent projects there is the Nigerian ‘high-speed train’ that connects  Abuja, the capital of Nigeria to the northern city of Kaduna. Transport began in 2017 and trains can reach a speed of 200 km per hour. Passengers reach their destination in just one hour. Declarations of the government authorities also show their intention to extend and modernise the rail network in the coming years so as to have better connections with the cities of Lagos, Ibadan and Kano. (Matteo Fraschini Koffi)

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