Over the past decade Africa has been rife with infrastructure developments that hitherto continue to steadily transform the continent, spurring the much-needed economic development. This is well aligned to aspiration 2 of Africa’s Agenda 2063, which advocates for ‘an integrated continent politically united based on the ideas of Pan Africanism and the vision of African Renaissance’ with the key priority area of developing world class infrastructure that crisscrosses Africa.
Inadequate infrastructure in Sub-Saharan Africa has remained an existential hurdle to the continent’s achievement of robust economic growth. According to a report by Deloitte, this status quo has reduced national economic growth by two percentage points every year, and cut business productivity by as much as 40 per cent. In reiteration, another report by McKinsey and Company highlights that Africa faces an infrastructure paradox, in that there is need and availability of funding together with a large pipeline of potential projects but not enough money is being spent. Resultantly, this has made moving projects to financial close poor, with 80 per cent of infrastructure projects failing at the feasibility and business-plan stage.
Given that Africa is viewed as the world’s fastest growing economic hub, appetite for investments in infrastructure have been growing exponentially with meeting the demand for key infrastructure identified as a priority. In light of this, late June 2022 the G7 Summit 2022 held in Germany saw world leaders including the UK, US, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Canada announce a US$600B lending initiative to fund infrastructure projects in the developing world, with a particular focus on Africa.
By the same token, it was noted that the Partnership for Global Infrastructure Initiative (PGII) launched by the US at the last G7 Summit in Cornwall, UK but officially launched by President Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz this year will aid in sealing the infrastructure deficit in developing countries, and provide an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The African Development Bank (AfDB) places importance that infrastructure development is a key driver for progress across the continent and a critical enabler for productivity and sustainable economic growth. The Bank has been a forerunner in supporting diverse infrastructure projects across the continent. BRI is hailed as the most ambitious infrastructure project ever conceived, and African countries have been keen to tap into the opportunities presented by the initiative to improve infrastructural development with massive projects in countries like Egypt, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia already bearing fruit. Another rival project launched in 2017 is the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), an economic cooperation agreement between the governments of Japan, India and multiple African countries. Among its key components is to foster quality infrastructure in the continent. Central to this infrastructure development eruption has been the railway renaissance that has recorded a plethora of monumental gains and continues to wield massive potential to bolster economic growth.
Africa’s railway revolution
Railway is considered as the fastest, cheapest and most efficient method of transporting people and goods in the world. Railways in Africa are divided into four broad categories which comprise of mineral, new, legacy and commuter. The African Union of Railways is an organization under the auspices of the AU dealing with railways; akin to the International Union of Railways (IUC). The continent is well on its course to achieve the ‘Africa Rail 2025’ strategy for Africa’s Railways, adopted in October 2012 at the 9th Regional Assembly in Tangiers. Across Africa, different regions have established rail corridors with laid out blueprints. For instance, countries in East Africa formulated the East African Railway Masterplan, with the chief goal of rejuvenating the railways serving Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and intends to add more to serve Burundi and Rwanda.
Furthermore, the project seeks to boost the economic development of eastern Africa, by increasing speed and efficiency whilst lowering the cost, of transporting cargo between major ports on the Indian Ocean Coast and the interior. In future, the plan, which is managed by respective infrastructure ministers from the East African Community (EAC) countries projects to expand the eastern Africa railway network to Ethiopia, South Sudan and DRC.
To boot, the Plan aims for a seamless interoperability within the resulting hybrid railway network, and intends to rehabilitate the existing colonial era narrow-gauge railways, as all new ones will be standard gauge. Members of the Northern Corridor Integration Project (NCIP) are in agreement to build all of their railways, in line with the Chinese National Railway Class 1 standard. In contrast, the Central Corridor which includes Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi, have selected the Chinese Class 2, together with the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance Way Association standard. The North-South Rail Corridor is another example, consisting of a rail network that stretches over 3000km from Durban in South Africa through Zimbabwe and Botswana and links to the DRC through Zambia.
This serves as Southern Africa Development Community’s (SADC) main international rail gateway for transporting inbound and outbound cargo. Similarly, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has a goal to develop an integrated railroad network including extension of railways in member countries, the interconnection of previously isolated railways and the standardization of gauge, brakes, couplings and other parameters. The first proposed line is to connect the cities and ports of Lagos (Nigeria), Cotonou (Benin), Lomé (Togo) and Accra (Ghana) allowing the largest container ships to focus on a smaller number of large ports, while efficiently serving a larger hinterland.
Railway projects shaping Africa
China is a renowned investor in Africa’s infrastructure. According to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, since 2000, Chinese companies have completed more than 10,000 kilometres of railway. There are numerous rail networks in Africa that are shaping or projected thereof upon completion, to transform economies across the continent. For instance, Morocco’s Al Boraq is a 323-kilometre-long high-speed rail service between Casablanca and Tangier, inaugurated in November 2018, by King Mohammed VI. It operates over a dedicated high-speed line, reaching speeds of up to 357Km/h, making it the sixth fastest train in the world. It has reduced travel time to fifty minutes from over three hours and caters to over three million passengers.
In neighbouring Algeria, there is the High Plateau line, which is a network of railway lines under construction.
Furthermore, the Coradia Polyvalent for Algeria is a mainland dual-mode train (diesel and electric-25kV) capable of running at speeds of 160km/h. With a total length of 110km, the train has six cars and offers a capacity of 254 passengers including sixty in first class; they are classified as low-cost and maintenance trains. Senegal’s US$1.3B Dakar Regional Express Train project (RET) which runs at 160km/h was launched in December 2021 by President Macky Sall. This is part of a flagship project of the Emerging Senegal Plan set for 2035, and has transformed the country’s transportation and fueled the growth of the economy.
As one of the mega flagship projects under the Belt and Road Initiative, the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway launched in 2018 has been a game-changer, dubbed as East Africa’s ‘golden passage’. It is 752km long, offering both passengers and freight services and cost US$4.08B to construct. It has enabled sea-rail, a combined transportation model under which cargos sail from Asia via the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, to Djibouti Ports before transportation through the line to the hinterland of East Africa. As of June 2022, revenue from freight transportation rose by 9.3 percent year-on-year.
The Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway, the first of its kind since independence was also constructed by Chinese firms replacing colonial era metre-gauge railways. Launched in 2017 by President Uhuru Kenyatta, it runs at 120km/h on the 482km line carrying both passengers and freight. Moreover, Kenya is making plans to refurbish the 127-kilometre Voi-Taveta metre gauge railway line to serve the Kenya Ports Authority’s inland container depot at Taveta on the border of Tanzania set to commence in the 2022/23 financial year. The rehabilitated rail line is expected to connect the Taveta ICD with the Port of Mombasa making it easier to move and boost transit volumes, exports to Tanzania and Burundi. It will bring Port facilities closer to importers and exporters will reduce the distance from Mombasa to Bujumbura via the Northern Corridor by 358km.
The Tazara railways is one of the oldest rail networks in East Africa, linking the Port of Dar es Salaam in east Tanzania with Kipiri Moshi in Zambia. It is also referred to as the Uhuru railway or the Tanzam and was built by the Chinese after the Bandung conference in 1955.
Opened in 1975 it is a single-track 1860 km long railway. It provided the only route for bulk trade from Zambia’s Copperbelt, to reach the sea without having to transit to white-ruled territories. Tanzania’s bullet train projected to complete in 2024 will run at 160 km/h making the fastest train in East Africa. Currently, South Korean company Hyundai Rotem is developing a 546km high speed electric line. Just recently, Tanzania conducted a test run on its newly-built 300km standard gauge railway (SGR) which can reach speeds of 160km/h between Dar es Salaam and Morogoro, the first of five phases of the project.
Egypt is on course with the construction of its fastest electric rail line to date, having already signed a US$4.45B with Siemens Mobility in September 2021. The North African country will introduce top speed trains of 250km per hour, to ply the 1800km-long rail line linking its Red Sea and the Mediterranean starting in 2023. The country seeks to additionally replace the 100km/h Cairo Metro trains. Tunisia boasts of the SNCFT trains running at 120 km/h, on a 471km stretch which began in December 2012.
Moreover, the country has plans in the pipeline for high-speed cross-border trains between Tunisia and Libya on an electrified, double track line that will boost current speeds to 250km/h. South Africa’s Gautrain which began operations in 2012, is another high-speed train running at 160 km/h on an 80km commuter rail system, making it the country’s fastest train.
Under the Lagos Rail Mass Transit, the country announced that the blue and red lines would commence operations by December 2022 and the first quarter of 2023.The blue rail is expected to be electric, while the engine of the red line will run on diesel, which can alternatively be converted to electric to cut on combustion. The red line is projected to transport a million passengers daily whilst the blue 750,000.
Earlier in February Lagos State acquired two new speed trains, for its Red Line metro project, a 37-kilometre intra-city railway system.
A railway linking Ghana and Burkina Faso has long been planned, but is scheduled to be completed by December 2022. The project known as the Ghana-Burkina Faso Railway Interconnectivity project runs from the Port of Tema near Ghana’s capital Accra in the south to Ouagadougou, the capital of landlocked Burkina Faso in the north. It aims to improve the transportation of goods by provision of reliable, quick, safe and cost-efficient services to Ghanaian shippers. In addition, it will serve other landlocked countries like Niger and Mali. A section of the line from Tema Port to Mpakadan is currently under construction and is the first phase. The vision behind the project is to facilitate trade and accelerate economic development in line with the ECOWAS treaty of 1975, which seeks to promote the free movement of people and goods.
Economic benefits of railway infrastructure in Africa
Rail transport is preferred because it is energy efficient, produces reduced greenhouse emissions and lowers the cost per tonne kilometre which is integral to convey freight over long distances. Transport infrastructure has been a major obstacle in Africa, which has raised the cost of doing business. The rail sector is crucial as it wields massive potential to accelerate trade in Africa and is key in the full realization of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), coupled with other developmental goals.
Consequently, this has continued to boost the GDP of economies across the continent, and improve the quality of life through eradication of extreme poverty. Effective rail networks are key to attracting investments in different sectors, and also appeals to entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who have been previously put off by lack of proper infrastructure. Rail networks make significant contribution to Africa’s tourism sector, fostering domestic tourism which in tandem greatly aids in building economies. Additionally, rail networks foster cultural exchanges and deepen integration among African countries.