Take the train to economic growth: most of Africa's rail network is dilapidated and in urgent need of modernisation. While the costs involved are high, the economic benefits across the board can be enormous. Richard Seymour reports.

Author:Seymour, Richard

AS FAR BACK AS 30 YEARS AGO, Africa's railways carried a large proportion of the continent's traffic. This had much to do with the fact that roads were notoriously poor. In addition, some companies owed their existence and success to railways and so continued to depend on them. In some cases, companies that were wholly or partially state owned were obliged to use and therefore subsidise the state-owned railway system.


In the intervening years, however, the liberalisation of state economies and of railways themselves has exposed the railways to competition from an improved transport infrastructure.

Various wars have exacerbated the railways' decline. With few exceptions, most of Africa's rail network is disconnected. Those that exist are generally in poor condition and only serve limited routes between seaports and inland trading centres.

Many national railways simply do not carry enough traffic to justify the considerable investment needed to bring them up to standard. Competition from road (cars, buses and trucks) often renders railways unviable. However, where economic growth and population expansion have raced ahead of capacity building, railways can make sense.

Nigeria is one country that had seen fit to invest heavily in its rail network. In the first half of the [20.sup.th] century, Nigeria's railways continued to expand. This was driven by British colonialism and its desire for agriculture and mineral exports.

Since then the network has effectively shrunk as large sections fell into disuse with unstable government and chronic corruption being blamed for its atrophy.

Successive governments, each with different policies on the matter, have seen Nigeria's railways bounced about like a football. Each time a decision was made, a new government would tear it up and start again. However, a period of relative political stability and rapid economic growth has encouraged approximately $10bn to be invested in Nigeria's railways over the last decade, with many of the contracts going to Chinese companies.

Indeed, in 2012, China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), owned by the Chinese state, was awarded a s1.49bn contract to lay a railway between Lagos and Ibadan. Other than the economic benefits of linking major economic centres, it is hoped uniting disparate parts of the country will bring social change. The existing but dilapidated ido km rail system between Lagos and Kano in the north was refurbished and...

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