Monday, April 21, 2008

As oil prices climb, what future for Africa's rail system?

Just a half decade ago, the freight rail industry in the United States was teetering on the edge of relevance. Its infrastructure was shoddy. People where moving goods by other transport. Major railroads laid off nearly 5,000 workers in 2002. Today, many of those jobs have been rehired. New tracks have been added for the first time in 80 years. Further upgrades to rail infrastructure has also been completed, increasing train speeds and delivery times. As the Washington Post points out, trains are much more efficient than trucks: A train can transport a ton of freight on just one gallon of diesel fuel, three times more energy economical than a semi.

Blame it on the combination of growing global trade, high gasoline prices and environmental marketing: freight rail is back in the United States.

On the rails in Africa
What about Africa? Although catching up, business on the continent still suffers from high transport costs and a host of other infrastructure issues, which keeps it in the lower tier of world trade.

It’s not that Africans don’t acknowledge the bonus of having a good rail system. They merely have to hark back at their history to find that reliable, efficient transport is a necessary ingredient of trade. “All new countries must remain ‘savage’ as long as the lack a means of transport,” began a 1904 New York Times article on railways in colonial Africa. It’s true. Africa’s colonial masters exploited the continent’s people and resources through a relatively vast network of railroad lines, mostly built with forced labor. Following independence, some of those railways expanded; in many places, however, they fell victim of neglect due to financial reasons or war and chaos.

A widespread argument today claims that better transport infrastructure means easier movement of people, and possibly more important, goods. It will allow landlocked countries like Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali with better access to ports in Lome, Abidjan and Tema, Ghana. Also, efficient rail service will decrease distances of the supply chain. All this will boost trade and economic opportunity, of course. A World Bank program has been launched to develop all forms of African transport, including rail.

Other factors exist: A smooth running railway is much less dangerous than a hundred thousand trucks – many of questionable repair – on the roads. Railways, if planned correctly, will also decrease traffic in clogged urban areas.

Hot Links
How to bring this about? The African Union – along with national transport ministers – is currently toying with the idea of “linking” African countries via a number of key corridors to create a continental-wide rail system. However, hurdles exist in this scheme, argues Jeff Radebe, South Africa’s minister of transport. First, there are a good number of missing links, especially in underdeveloped African countries. Also, in some countries it remains difficult to bring the private sector on board in government schemes (more on this later); funding commitments are hard to come by; and, cross border issues remain.

Regardless, Radebe points out that the following projects are already underway:

  • Linking the lines of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia
  • Strengthening ties between South Africa and Mozambique and Lesotho and ports in South Africa;
  • Increasing regulatory ties in east Africa also, between Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia and Swaziland.

In the dream stage remains a plan to link the rails of West Africa and South Africa. Also, to create a rail/pedestrian/auto bridge over the Congo river to connect Brazzaville and Kinshasa.

Don’t call it privatization
The World Bank would like shift of the responsibility of Africa’s transport infrastructure from a primarily government function to one involving the private sector. These partnerships will most likely come in the form of national governments working alongside international concerns, but the World Bank also envisions small- and medium-sized entrepreneurs getting on board. This web of public/private partnerships will help create adequate legal, regulatory – and most importantly – financial framework to build better transport across the continent, increasing trade, competition, access to rural areas, etc. More than ten years ago, the World Bank argued that throughout Africa problems remain liberalizing the transport sector, where partnerships like these are not only difficult to initiate – but illegal. (They didn’t say which ones.)

Yet, the approval of the private sector is vital to build the continent’s necessary transport infrastructure, because: 1) let’s be honest, transport is primarily used by commercial entities; 2) national governments have a long history of backing away from regulatory and financial responsibilities in the transport domain, especially equipment heavy physical infrastructure like railways; 3) the private sector can provide a large amount of funding, which can be hard for governments to accumulate. (A point I don’t really agree with, unless you are talking of “international private sector.”); finally, 4) providing the public sector with a voice will increase service.

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