Here in the UK, we often complain about our rail network with the trains are often delayed and expensive tickets. But, not only can the rail networks transport us around the country, or even into Europe, for work or pleasure, freight trains trundle around the country delivering goods from coal and oil to food products. Without the network up and running, we would miss it.
In Africa,this isn’t the case. Most of the rail networks were built during colonial periods, to facilitate the movement of the military and goods from the large farming and mining operations. After the independence, borders were broken up and the rail network didn’t have the same relevance as previously. Ran by inefficient public bodies, most railways have decayed and fallen into disrepair. I have rarely seen a train there, and when I have it has been trudging along slowly through the city, while people lazily stroll across the train track in front of it. The railways sometimes even have little market settlements on them, making it impossible to drive a train along them.
This impacts the continent in many ways. Not only is it long and tiresome to travel around countries or between countries, the cost of transporting freight in land from the coast is very high. Currently, most freight transportation relies on trucks taking the long journeys along the often badly maintained roads, which is neither safe or efficient.
Lack of investment in infrastructure is a major topic amongst academics, potential and active investors and Think Tanks and conferences. With rail travel, it once again comes down to investment. And this investment is deeply needed, in my opinion. Currently, in Africa, the rail networks share of freight transport in most countries is below 20%. (20% is a lot higher than I would have expected)
With abundant natural wealth across the continent, an effective continent wide rail network is imperative to help Africa achieve it’s full potential.
In South Africa and north Africa, rail networks are relatively effective, but the rest of the continent is lagging far behind. This in depth study by the African Development Bank, outlines changes that they believe will stir the sector into growth.
There is some room for hope though. Nigeria has just opened Africa’s first standard gauge rail line between Abuja and Kaduna in the north and President Buhari has hinted at rehabilitating 3 narrow gauge rail lines and building new tracks across the country. The Chinese, who built Nigerian project, have also offered a loan to Tanzania to build a regional railway link. This will enable Tanzania to take advantage of its long coastline and offer better freight services to the landlocked countries in the heart of Africa, hopefully boosting the economies of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The Ghanaian High Commissioner to Malaysia has also recently spoken, inviting the Malaysians to get involved in developing a railway from the South to the North of Ghana, a journey that can currently take over 10 hours by car. He believes that this would especially help lower income society in Ghana. In 2010 the Ghanaians finished renovations on the railway between the capital Accra and Ghana’s major port city, Tema.
With an incredible amount of innovation coming out of the continent, I am surprised that I can not find any ideas for African specific rail networks. Whether a solar powered train learning from the Kayoola Solar Bus in Uganda, or a faster way of preparing the land and laying the tracks.
If anyone knows of any rail or train innovations coming out of Africa, let me know by commenting here, or on Twitter