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.
Drivers on the main road to the capital ought to cheer if the line results in fewer smoke-spewing trucks coming out of the port, but the business case for it is shaky. The new track is costing Kenya about $4 billion, mostly funded by a loan from the Chinese ExIm bank, but how it will be repaid is unclear.
Although only a year remains before completion, not only are tariffs and rates undecided, but it is not even clear who will run the railway. Kenyan officials have apparently taken to skipping trade conferences of late to avoid answering questions.
Could this be because the new railway is a dud investment? Its fastest trains will do a fairly mediocre 80kph. Much as with the old railway, parts of the new line will be single-track, forcing trains to stop, often for hours, to let others pass. Most absurdly, it is built to a lower standard of load-bearing than most other new freight railways. Some fret it may not be possible to load four full containers onto each wagon, as is done on other new lines. “They’re getting a third-rate railway for the cost of a very expensive one,” says a consultant.
Repaying the loans taken out to build the line will require hefty fees or huge volumes of traffic. But truckers—who now handle more than 95% of the freight moved from Mombasa port—will compete fiercely on price, and shipping companies may look for other ports if levies rise. Rehabilitating the older line might have cost just 5% as much asbuilding a new one on a new right of way, reckons Pierre Pozzo di Borgo of the International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank.
But efforts to mend rather than buy have generally not gone well either. Since the 1990s many African railways have been handed over to private concessions to boost investment and improve management.
But the reality has been disappointing. Competition from truckers (who don’t have to pay their share to maintain roads, even though they do the most damage to them) has shifted cargo from rail to tarmac, shredding the business plans of concessionaires. Many are struggling to cover their running costs, never mind invest.
When the railway that runs from Dakar in Senegal to Mali was first put into private hands, the average age of track was 37 years on the Senegalese side and 51 years on the Malian side. When Tanzania’s network was concessioned in 2001, over half of the network still had the original colonial rails—more than 90 years old. And new lines, too, become old. In the 1970s, in a spirit of socialist co-operation, China built a brand-new line connecting Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s commercial capital, to Zambia and its copper fields. It has since fallen into disrepair as bad as that of Tanzania’s colonial-era lines. If the latest generation of railways cannot make money either, the temptation then will be to skimp on maintenance.
If only governments were as enthusiastic about maintaining infrastructure as they are about building it. On a continent where almost everything is reused, from mobile-phone parts to plastic bags, governments seem to prefer to buy shiny new things, however expensive.