Africa is on the cusp of launching a free-trade zone that could meaningfully boost economic growth and unlock the continent’s vast potential.

Perhaps the most pressing requirement for the trading bloc’s success is the need for better transportation links between African states, particularly in the form of rail networks.

The establishment of a continentwide free-trade area is an ambitious project, and one that could move the needle in terms of reducing poverty and promoting Africa’s industrialisation. Other regions, including the EU, offer good case studies on the benefits of economic integration, trade liberalisation, customs efficiencies, and the seamless movement of capital, goods and people across borders.

With its strong road, rail and air-transport links, the EU model reflects just how important it is to remove nontariff barriers to trade. According to a May 2019 report by the IMF, nontariff barriers in Africa are high “and represent a critical obstacle to trade”. The IMF says a reduction in ground transportation costs are “especially critical” to encouraging intraregional trade and making a success of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

The development of a comprehensive African rail network is the single biggest opportunity in that regard.

A reliable rail network would allow for the efficient movement of goods, businesspeople and tourists across the continent, while also improving Africa’s links to the rest of the world, particularly the continent’s landlocked nations. Rail is also a sustainable solution given that it is far more environmentally friendly than road and air transport — Africa’s natural environment is one of its greatest assets, and it must be protected. Rail investments stimulate economies while reducing carbon emissions and urban congestion — a major issue and growth impediment in many African cities.

As Africa invests in its rail industry and green transportation sustainable mobility should be a priority. Backed by new regulations and environmental groups, the global trend towards greener forms of transport is affecting multiple industries including the rail industry.

Several alternatives to diesel trains are being developed worldwide, including trains powered by hydrogen fuel cells. These fuel cells generate energy by combining hydrogen and oxygen.

At the same time, battery-powered locomotives are becoming increasingly relevant. In this case, battery systems can be recharged by overhead wires on electrified tracks, or by charging stations on non-electrified routes.

Liquefied natural gas technology is also being used in the industry as an option for dual-fuel locomotives.

These technologies will help in the shift towards a zero-emission, energy-efficient and cost-effective future of transportation. Deploying fuel cell and battery technology for rail transportation will usher in a new era for nonelectrified routes.

Bombardier Transportation is increasingly focused on this space. In September 2018, the company launched a new battery-operated train, the first of its kind to enter passenger operation in Europe in over 60 years. It does not generate any exhaust and is also about 50% quieter than modern diesel trains. This is our response to challenges such as air pollution, climate change and scarcity of resources.

With this in mind, Bombardier Transportation, which designed and supplied a fleet of 96 rail vehicles for SA’s world-class Gautrain system, sees a golden era ahead for Africa’s rail sector, which has suffered from chronic underinvestment in recent decades.  

Today, African freight and passenger transport is heavily reliant on road infrastructure. In SA, the continent’s most advanced economy, nearly 90% of freight is moved by road, for example. That is a staggering proportion, and this overreliance means that our roads need to be constantly repaired while traffic congestion worsens in the face of urbanisation. Worse still, the lack of focus on rail until recently has placed a drag on SA’s exports, and by extension, the economy.

Thankfully, the SA government is reinvesting in the country’s rail links — a move that Bombardier Transportation fully supports. Going forward, these efforts need to be increasingly co-ordinated with the country’s neighbours. 

SA also has an opportunity to become a major rail manufacturing hub as the continent invests in railway infrastructure, including new trains, signalling systems and general maintenance. Rail will play an important role in Africa’s future, and Bombardier Transportation is keen to apply its global expertise and solutions to help propel the continent forward.

Ultimately, rail’s contribution towards an integrated transport network will help Africa to attract investment and to be competitive in the global trade arena. Rail is the only sustainable transportation solution to many of today’s environmental, social and economic challenges and Bombardier is looking forward to moving millions safely in the African region.

Naturally, some challenges must be overcome to ensure the success of rail projects. According to a report by the African Development Bank, economies of scale play an essential role in the viability of railway projects — the larger the volumes of goods and people to be moved, the greater the likelihood of operating on a commercial basis. Given Africa’s size and potential, this can be relatively easily addressed if the continent’s states co-ordinate their efforts.

Aubrey Lekwane is SA MD of Bombardier Transportation.