Countries across Southern Africa are pouring billions of dollars into overhauling their railways, hoping to ease the flow of exports and to boost their plan to create a common market.
Angola and Mozambique are reviving railways that had been destroyed during decades of civil war. South Africa has proposed tripling its rail investment to unblock bottlenecks in its exports of raw materials.
South Africa has even proposed laying a line across tiny Swaziland for freight trains to deliver coal exports.
“The expansion of our mining and resource processing industries, which are key exporters in our economies, is going to depend on the growth of rail capacity and improvement in productivity,” said Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba.
“Rail is an intrinsically cheaper and more efficient form of transport for large volume, heavy goods that need to be transported over long distances,” he told a regional rail conference recently.
Outside of South Africa’s better developed system, the region’s other railways are colonial inheritances designed purely to bring the riches of the continent’s interior to sea.
The lines are often isolated, with few connections.
The 15-nation Southern African Development Community is expected to produce a blueprint for regional transportation plans, as part of its move toward eventually creating a common market.
In the meantime countries are pressing ahead on their own, with Chinese firms taking a leading role in the construction work.
One of the most spectacular projects would link Namibia’s railways to the South Africa network around Johannesburg, by crossing Botswana’s Kalahari desert.
But not everything is running smoothly.
Botswana is looking to link to Mozambique’s ports on the Indian Ocean by crossing Zimbabwe, rather than South Africa.
Namibia is building a line toward Angola, where no extension is planned.
“In the past few years, driven partly by the commodity price boom and the expansion of the mining sector, there has been a renewed interest in reviving the railway sector,” said consultant Bo Giersing.
“The main challenge is not to finance the infrastructure provision, it is rather to achieve an economically viable and sustainable railway service.”
And to get away from outdated methods, with inefficient rotation of stock and unnecessary trans-shipments.
Crossing borders also poses a major problem, with trains often stuck for two or three days waiting for customs clearance. The goal is to reduce the wait to one hour.
“It is critical that we leverage rail to expand trade in the region,” Gigaba said.
“We need to see how we can support the growth of rail transport in our neighbouring countries as scale will benefit us all.”
Improving transport would do a lot for regional economies. For a landlocked nation like Malawi, transport accounts for 55% of the cost of merchandise, said Bernard Dzawanda, head of the Southern African Railway Association.
Just as the region is moving toward integrating its rail lines, South Africa has thrown a new challenge into the mix: Pretoria wants to build new lines with a standard gauge track of 1.435m, which is seen as more convenient.
The region already uses the so-called Cape gauge, of 1.067m. – AFP