Africa's developing integrated high speed railway network - why SA should take notice

Railway continues to be the optimal means for transporting freight. Photographer: Phando Jikelo / Independent Newspapers

Railway continues to be the optimal means for transporting freight. Photographer: Phando Jikelo / Independent Newspapers

Published Mar 14, 2024


By Hügo Krüger

Amidst the decline of Transnet's infrastructure, the South African public should not lose sight of the ongoing developments across the continent, especially in the realm of railway infrastructure.

The vision of a railway stretching from Cape Town to Cairo originated as an ambitious idea proposed by Cecil John Rhodes and other colonialists in the preceding century.

Nevertheless, in the post-colonial era, there was a notable shift towards automobile transportation for personal travel.

Despite this, the realisation of the grand concept of a railway stretching from Cape Town to Cairo is now poised for a potential resurgence with the introduction of Africa's Integrated High-Speed Railway Network (AIHSRN).

Railway continues to be the optimal means for transporting freight, acting as the primary logistics backbone in numerous countries, particularly those lacking navigable rivers for efficient freight transport.

Last year, a technical workshop convened in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from the 12th to the 14th of December 2023 to deliberate on the achievements and challenges of ongoing rail modernisation projects across the continent. Critical needs, notably financing, were identified, along with other essential aspects such as railway technical skills training in universities.

The event proved highly optimistic and successful, providing a valuable platform for leaders in the rail industry to engage with the African Union body overseeing the project, AUDA-Nepad (African Union Development Agency – New Partnership for Africa's Development).

The concept of a modernised, standardised, and integrated continental railway was conceived by the African Union in 2013 as part of Agenda 2063, known as 'The Africa We Want.'

The cornerstone of this ambitious endeavour is a continental railway that connects all regions and capital cities through a standard gauge, high-speed rail network.

Transportation expenses on the continent rank among the world's highest, inflating the cost of doing business and rendering products less competitive in global markets.

Railways emerge as one of the most efficient and cost-effective means of transporting freight over long distances. China serves as a prime example of the transformative impact high-speed rail can have on the economy, demonstrating how industrialisation can be accelerated through such infrastructure.

Numerous African countries are currently in the process of modernising and expanding their national railway networks to operate at higher speeds and adopt a standard gauge.

Despite challenges in some cases, progress has been reported by countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Ethiopia, Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia.

Notably, the Nigerian Railway Modernisation Plan has successfully overcome major obstacles, including a constitutional amendment and the restructuring of the Nigerian Railway Corporation.

With these key issues addressed, continued progress is anticipated, supported by Nigeria's well-designed, world-class Master Railway Plan. This plan is expected to connect Maradi in Niger, Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, and ultimately Douala in Cameroon, Cote D'Ivoire, and Dakar, Senegal.

In East Africa, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Tanzania are leading the way in the rail industry, driven in part by their governments' strong commitment to AIHSRN. Ethiopia, for instance, inaugurated its electrified cross-border train connection, the Addis-Djibouti line, in 2018, and is actively expanding outward links to neighbouring states, including South Sudan.

Tanzania's story is particularly noteworthy, with its Tanzanian SGR comprising a network of approximately 2 000 km developed in six phases, as explained by Masanja Kadogosa, the Director General of Tanzania Railways Corporation (TRC), in an interview with Railways Africa Magazine.

The objective of this segment of the AIHSRN is to establish a railway connection between Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Currently, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo are undergoing feasibility studies for the proposed railway.

The rail network is planned to extend to Goma, the Provincial Capital of North Kivu in DRC, via Kigali in Rwanda.

The construction responsibility up to the border lies with the Tanzania Railway Corporation (TRC).

This integrated approach is a crucial aspect of the AIHSRN, fostering standardised, modernised rail connectivity between countries and notably creating economic corridors for land-locked nations without maritime access.

In the northern region of Tanzania, another railway line is under construction, connecting the Port of Tanga to Mount Kilimanjaro, Arusha, and Musoma, ultimately reaching the Kenyan border. The southern corridor of the Tanzania railway network is planned to link with Malawi and Mozambique.

In Northern Africa, Al Boraq, Morocco's truly high-speed train, remains relatively unknown to many, despite its remarkable maximum speed of 357 km/hr and operational speed of 320 km/hr.

This high-speed service operates between Casablanca and Tangiers, covering a distance of more than 300 km, and is managed by ONCF, the Moroccan Railway Company.

Additionally, there are proposed plans for an under-sea tunnel that could connect Africa to Europe, enabling travel from Rabat, Morocco, to Madrid in 6 hours and Rabat to Paris in 10 hours.

These plans underscore the transformative potential of high-speed railways.

The matter of high-speed rail was discussed at the recent Rail Summit in Addis. Ibrah Wahabu, AUDA-Nepad Senior Programme Officer for Infrastructure and Connectivity, clarified in an interview with Philippa Dean of “Railways Africa Magazine” that the African Union has opted to revise expectations of speed.

Consequently, the AIHSRN will be renamed the African Integrated Railways Network.

Achieving high speed necessitates electrification, as diesel engines are incapable of reaching high speeds. Africa is once again challenged by its significant energy deficit, underscoring the urgent need for more energy, given that electricity serves as the backbone of the economy.

Ibra Wahabu highlighted that AUDA-Nepad is poised to prioritise rail as the backbone of economic corridors in the future.

This strategic direction aligns closely with China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Egyptian model for economic development, proposed by President El Sisi in 2014, mirrors this concept and includes the construction of a new sister city for Cairo, the completed New Suez Canal, and the pivotal El Dabaa Nuclear Plant, currently under construction with Russian Nuclear Rosatom serving as a key player in this ambitious project.

To manage risks and maintain competitive contracts, the TRC is implementing its Master Railway Plan in segments, proving to be a successful operational strategy.

Tanzania's Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) utilises electric locomotives with the capacity to transport both passengers and cargo shipments at speeds of up to 160 km per hour.

Despite the ongoing developments, South Africa still possessing the framework of an advanced railway infrastructure, declines, and mismanagement across various state-owned infrastructures have resulted in deterioration.

A commitment to achieving greater continental trade integration, and to not be excluded from the rest of the continent, requires South Africa to take the lead by revitalising Transnet - the skeleton of the state-owned enterprises world class infrastructure is there, but Eskom requires continual maintenance.

Hügo Krüger is a YouTube podcaster, writer and civil nuclear engineer who has worked on a variety of energy-related infrastructure projects, ranging from Nuclear Power, LNG and Renewable Technologies.

Hügo Krüger, MSc in Civil Nuclear Engineering.

* The views in this column are independent of Business Report and Independent Media.