More than a century after construction began, and following decades of war-ravaged disrepair, the future of Angolan rail transport is bright.

British colonial engineers initiated construction of the Angolan Railway network in the early 20th Century. The tracks followed established trade routes into the hinterlands and through to the copperbelt in Katanga provinces of what are now the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Zambia.

It took almost thirty years for the Benguela railway – one of three lines in Angola – to reach Luau on the eastern border. Almost thirty years of civil war in the latter half of the century was more than sufficient to all but destroy the country’s rail infrastructure.

In 2011 the government’s Angolan Railway Rehabilitation and Modernization Program (PRMCFA –Programa de Reabilitação e Modernização dos Caminhos de Ferro de Angola) has the support of major Chinese investment. This ambitious endeavour will ultimately benefit not only Angola but its neighbours also.

Thousands of landmines are being cleared along the tracks and stations are being built along the lines breathing new life into the previously isolated inland towns. The Angolan railway renaissance is in full-steam.

Regional Networks

 

Three lines traverse Angola – the Luanda Railway (CFL), the Benguela Railway (CFB) and the Moçâmedes Railway (CFM) – each carrying passengers and freight. The Benguela line is by far the longest at over 1,300km.

All three lines are members of the Southern African Railway Association (SARA) – a regional association established in 1996 to “promote the railway industry in the Southern African Development Community (SADC).”

In time it is hoped that passengers and traders alike will be able to board a train in Luanda or Benguela and travel to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Beira in Mozambique, or Cape Town in South Africa.

The development of a trans-African railway network remains a distant reality. According to the African Development Bank, the average rail network density, at 2.9km per 1,000 square kilometers, is one of the lowest in the world. 

That said, with new investment in railways occurring throughout the continent – Bloomberg reports that “Record commodity prices are driving Africa’s biggest railway boom since the 19th Century,” with $35 billion injected into rail projects over the next 5 years – so that such dreams may become a reality sooner than many might expect.

The New-Approach Corridor Concept is being advanced to encourage inter-African trade. The deficit of inter-African trade is considered one of the greatest hindrances to development throughout the continent.

While Angola retains good trade relations with South Africa, its key trading partners lie far further afield in Asia, North and South America, and Europe.

Angola’s agricultural potential is well known. Its future status as a ‘breadbasket’ of central and southern Africa will depend on the ability to transport products efficiently and reliably to its neighbours.

The need of Angola’s neighbours – particularly the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Zambia – to carry minerals and other goods to the coast was not diminished by the country’s civil conflict.

Indeed, high commodity prices have increased the demand for such products throughout the world and subsequently the need to transport them to efficiently functioning ports. The development of Angola’s rail networks is an essential step to achieve maximum efficiency and growth.

 

Domestic Development

 

Angola’s inland towns and cities have been cut off from the bustling developments of the coastal regions for many years. The rapid improvement of rail and road networks extending further into the hinterlands will enable cities such as Huambo, Lubango, Malange and Menongue to flourish as the country’s capital has and continues to do so.

Inter-Angolan trade will benefit the country as a whole. As domestic trade routes reopen and Angola’s eastern fertile lands reconnect with the rest of the country Luanda may, in time, lose its unenviable status as one of the most expensive cities in the world.

The agricultural sector – employing by far the greatest proportion of Angolans today – stands to benefit the most. The different climatic zones of Angola enable a rich variety of crops to be grown. Infrastructural impediments to the movement of produce are due to be lifted by the opening of freight rail services.

The diamond industry – focused in the interior of the country – is likely also to profit from a functioning rail network.

Beyond trade, Angola is a country of incredible beauty and contrast. A generation of Luandans have not seen their country. A generation of the rural population knows little more than their immediate vicinity.

The railways offer the opportunity to venture beyond the familiar for those who can’t afford to travel by road. They will enable families and friends to reconnect after years of isolation.

 

Challenges Ahead

The Luanda Railway (CFL) is now fully operational and, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, posted a turnover of almost $1 million in the first half of 2011.

However, reconstruction of the Benguela and Moçâmedes lines have been dogged by delays. Deadlines have been pushed back repeatedly due to operational delays.

By August 2011 the Benguela Railway (CFB) had been renovated between Lobito and the Central Plateau allowing over 4 million passengers and 20 million tonnes of cargo to be transported each year.

The National Railway plan benefits the economy as much as it does the population – the rich and the poor. Prior to a civil conflict that cost so much to so many, Angola had a proud history of rail transport. In time it looks set to regain such pride.