Building railroads in Africa

Updated: Nov 6, 2021 Xinhua Print
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Since the establishment of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2000, railway construction has become a priority in the two sides' cooperation, especially after the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative. So far, more than 6,000 kilometers of railways have been built in the continent within the China-Africa cooperation framework, injecting new impetus into local economic and social development. At the same time, improved transportation has created favorable conditions for transnational cooperation that have enhanced African countries' independent development capabilities.

The first railways appeared on the African continent at the end of the 19th Century when Western colonialists built them to transport various resources to its ports. In the 1960s, when African countries claimed independence one after another, some of them started to develop railways. But the process was suspended after nearly 20 years as some countries were caught in economic development traps.

In the 21st century, railway construction is back on the agenda as most African countries have achieved political stability and economic growth. In April 2006, the First African Union Conference of Ministers Responsible for Railway was held in Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of the Congo, which culminated in the Brazzaville Declaration.

The African Union proposed the African Integrated High-Speed Railway Network in 2018, aiming to connect capital cities and major commercial hubs with an interoperable high-speed railway network to boost continental trade and competition. The flagship project is also a key part of Agenda 2063, an ambitious blueprint for transforming Africa into a global powerhouse of the future.

Until now, 16 African countries have not embraced railways. According to the AU, Africa has an average of 2.5-km of railway track for every 1,000 square kilometers, lagging far behind the world average of 23 km. Meanwhile, standard gauge (1.435 m) railway lines, on which trains' average speed is 30-35 km per hour, account for 14.5 percent of the total. Further, most of the railways in the continent cannot be connected, hindering the integration process.

There are only about 6,500 km of railway lines supporting electric trains, accounting for 8.7 percent of the total, compared with over 30 percent of the worldwide electrification rate.

Based on its own experience and Africa's demands, China has long been offering strong support to the continent's infrastructure construction, including railways. For instance, the Tazara Railway, built in the 1970s, is one of China's largest foreign aid projects to date. Put into operation in July 1976, the 1,860-km-long railway line links Dar es Salaam in East Tanzania with Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia. It has boosted the economic and social development of regions along the route and supported the liberation movements in southern Africa. The project involved more than 50,000 Chinese engineers and technicians, becoming a monument of China-Africa friendship, and 70 Chinese lives were lost during the construction.

In recent decades, China and African countries have resumed cooperation in railway construction. The Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway, the first cross-border electrified railway in Africa, became operational in January 2018, connecting landlocked Ethiopia to the sea. The Ethiopian government has planned 13 industrial zones along the route, creating over 100,000 jobs and driving industrialization and urbanization.

Launched in May 2017, the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway has transported over 5 million people and 1.31 million containers and provided tens of thousands of jobs. The project has also trained a large group of local technicians including engine drivers, who now account for 80 percent of the railway's operation and management teams.

These railways have set up an effective transport network, whose significant role stood out after the novel coronavirus broke out. By May 2021, for example, the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway had ferried more than 1.5 million tons of pandemic prevention goods and industrial raw materials.

In the future, Africa plans to build 12,000 km of new railways with an investment of $36 billion, and electrify over 17,200 km, which will require another $7 billion.

However, it still faces challenges in terms of capital, talents and technology, particularly because of the way the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the economies in Africa.

In this backdrop, China can be a good partner offering its mature technologies, rich experience and a complete industrial chain in railway construction and operation. Despite the broad prospects, the two sides have to pay attention to the following aspects.

Railways are key to the continent's interconnectivity, a necessary premise for the integration of African countries. The cooperation will be carried out at the regional as well as national level. For example, the railroads centered in Kenya and radiating to Uganda, South Sudan, Tanzania and other places, successfully constitute a railway network in eastern Africa. It has greatly enhanced the connectivity of the region, laying a solid foundation for the connectivity of the whole continent.

The joint construction of railways on the continent by China and Africa should aim at facilitating Africa's industrialization and urbanization. As a booster of industrial development, railways accelerate urbanized progress, and enhance rural conditions. Hence, the cooperation needs to keep in mind urbanization plans to optimize the industrial layout. Railway construction could be a facet in African countries' strategic blueprint, including setting up economic corridors and stimulating employment and improving people's well-being.

The training of local human resources should be further strengthened. From construction, operation to management, railways need a large number of professional and technical personnel. Shortage of local technicians will become a bottleneck for expanding railway construction in the future. A cooperative mechanism should be built that encourages Chinese enterprises, universities and research institutions to address this problem by setting up training bases in some African countries or helping improve local engineering education systems.

Tian Muye is an assistant researcher of the China-Africa Institute. Wu Chuanhua is a research fellow of the China-Africa Institute and executive editor-in-chief of the China-Africa Studies. The authors contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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