Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL
Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL

African countries are embracing high-speed rail in their drive to integrate the continent, develop their economies and improve import and export speeds.

Built to transport raw materials from the interior to a handful of ports, Africa’s ageing and neglected colonial-era railroad network — combined with poor cargo-handling facilities at ports and excessive red tape at many borders — until recently slowed inward-bound freight to the speed of a horse.

But improvements in terminal capacity and efforts to reduce border bureaucracy and cut 90% of intra-African trade tariffs have improved the average time it takes for a consignment to get from port to consignee. This takes three days in SA, Nigeria, Algeria and Egypt, though Mauritania (32 days) and Chad (24) are the world’s worst.

World Bank figures for container port traffic in Sub-Saharan Africa show a rise from 11.6-million large containers in 2010 to 15-million in 2014, before declining to 14.1-million in 2016.

Countries that have bucked the downturn in recent years include Mauritius, Senegal, Algeria, Ghana and Equatorial Guinea; those driving the downturn include Togo, Gambia, Nigeria and Angola.

West African ports alone are expected to gross 20-million large containers by 2020.

In North Africa, Algeria’s container traffic growth has been the most dramatic — from 200,050 large containers in 2007 to 1.2-million in 2016. Egypt, with 6.7-million large containers in 2016, is Africa’s leader by volume. The figure for SA is 4.3-million large containers. Container traffic has even shown an uptick in war-torn Libya, with traffic almost quadrupling over that period.

Though far more volatile than container traffic, rail freight is also on the upswing in countries such as SA — now the continent’s leader, with 99.5Mt a kilometre — as well as Mozambique, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Swaziland, Uganda and Cameroon, according to the International Union of Railways. However, a sharp decline in other countries is clearly due to the unserviceable age of many tracks, locomotives and rolling stock.

Over the past 20 years, the attempt to revitalise rail has resulted in a rush to privatise rail services, particularly in West and East Africa. State control remains unchallenged across the Maghreb, but partial privatisation has gained a foothold in the eastern half of Southern Africa, though not in SA, Namibia, Angola, Botswana and Swaziland.

The African Development Bank says privatisation has shown that better funding, regulation and expertise are crucial.

Electrified rail freight carries larger volumes more cleanly than road or air freight. But rail relies on inflexible infrastructure and is hard to link up across borders, where technical modes such as the power system and the gauge aren’t necessarily compatible.

For example, while the most widespread gauge in Africa is Cape Gauge — as used in SA, Nigeria and much of formerly British Africa — at least five other gauges are used on the continent. So resolving compatibility issues will be a long and involved process.

The African Integrated High Speed Railway Network project, part of the AU’s Agenda 2063, aims to build on existing national railways and rehabilitate or construct 12,000km of "missing" linkages. At least 20% of the pilot phase is expected to be completed by 2023. The project is a key element of the African continental free trade area agreement, signed in March by 44 countries. SA signed in July. Nigeria has not signed as it is worried the pact may undermine local business.

The agreement is expected to increase intra-African trade from its current level of just 18% of exports, and speed up the regional integration of transport nodes from point of production to point of export.

The high-speed rail project, for which technical proposals were opened in January, envisages four north-south routes and six east-west routes, integrating projects such as an Abidjan-Lagos high-speed line with existing rail infrastructure.

The first true high-speed rail on the continent is Morocco’s new $2bn French-built passenger service. It connects Tangier and Casablanca, and peaks at 321km/hour — twice the top speed of SA’s Gautrain and significantly faster than the Americas’ fastest train, which peaks at 240km/hour.

But the African integration project has had major stumbling blocks. The $3.2bn first leg — financed, built and equipped by China — of a $13bn Nairobi-Mombasa-Kigali-Kampala route began operating in June 2017. But cost constraints have meant the locomotives are only able to pull at 158km/h — not the high-speed connection that was promised.

Velocity, it seems, will not be the watchword of Africa’s rail integration process.

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