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On a flight from Joburg to Nampula in February 2005, a wise American railroader leant across the aisle and said to the reporter due to accompany him on a struggling war-battered railway across northern Mozambique: “I’m so happy to be going to a country where rail has a future.”

His frustration was palpable. The previous week had evaporated in fruitless attempts to set up meetings with senior managers at then-Transnet rail operator Spoornet to see if the utility would consider concessioning its abandoned branch lines to private operators...

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