Along with the road transport sector, the railway system comprises all surface transport throughout Southern Africa. This extensive network has the potential to offer safe, efficient, and environmentally friendly transport across the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, connecting all major centres of population and economic activity with developing rural areas.
However, railways in the region are currently operating below capacity and function as a collection of national systems rather than as an integrated regional rail network. Following the deregulation of road transport in the region, railway traffic subsided and, coupled with the high fixed costs of operations, stagnated at its current level of efficacy. Efforts to increase traffic volumes have been thwarted by poor track conditions and low operating capital.
Yet, due to railways’ fuel efficiency and potentially cost-efficient implementation, SADC remains committed to fostering a functional and integrated rail network throughout Southern Africa. This commitment is outlined in the Protocol on Transport, Communication and Meteorology enforced in 1996.
The Protocol on Transport, Communication and Meteorology
Chapter 7 of the Protocol on Transport, Communication and Meteorology addresses SADC’s position on railways. In agreeing to the Protocol, Member States are required to facilitate an efficient and reliable railway service that helps to integrate the region. In order to do so, Member States should collaborate on harmonised policies for railway use and implementation that economically restructures the railways by increasing the role of the private sector. As well, these harmonised policies should aim for common standards and procedures, particularly in terms of infrastructure.
The Protocol on Transport, Communication and Meteorology also advocates that Member States establish multilateral Railways Route Management Groups that facilitate and oversee railway networks in the region, operating in conjunction with the Corridor Planning Committees that administer development along established transport corridors.
The railway system throughout Southern Africa faces substantial challenges. The deregulation of road transport caused an initial loss in traffic volume that has since rapidly expanded. Unlike road transport, the operating costs of railways remain largely fixed; therefore, a decrease in traffic forced railways to operate at a loss, with any income diverted toward salaries and fuel costs instead of maintenance and upkeep. Dwindling traffic and deteriorating infrastructure resulted in less investment into the rail system, resulting in unsustainable rail networks.
Recent plans for rehabilitating the rail network have tended toward installing new railway lines and implementing expensive upgrades, such as converting the entire network to European Standard Gauge rails as promoted by the African Union. However, these plans are mainly promoted by governments, not railway companies, which largely would prefer to revive existing infrastructure. While new railway lines are beneficial under certain scenarios, they are only effective when tied to a productive industry, as with the line to the Moatize coal site in Mozambique. Most current rail infrastructure can be made functional with minimal upgrades and is simply not operating at capacity. In order to become sustainable, additional capacity requirements can be met through increased freight loads, though this increase has yet to occur due to the unreliability and cost inefficiency of the current rail network in comparison with road transport.
In spite of these challenges, the region maintains a strong interest in revitalising the railway sector, currently handling several proposals for new projects. As outlined in the 2012 Regional Infrastructure Development Master Plan, the SADC region has 31 rail projects under consideration. This interest is not unusual, though, as a properly implemented rail network is more efficient than road transport in terms of cost and fuel.
In order for these projects to be financially viable, however, railways must significantly increase the volume of freight transported. Fortunately, many of the projects currently under development are intended to support industry, thereby offering potential for public-private partnerships to mitigate financial risk.
The following projects are anticipated in the short- to medium-term:
- Chingola (Zambia )– Solwezi Railway Extension
- Botswana – Lephalale Railway
- Moatize, (Mozambique) – Nacala Railway
- Sena (Mozambique) - Railway Upgrading
- Beira ( Mozambique) – Machipanda Line Upgrading
These projects currently under development offer the SADC region a prime opportunity to develop rail infrastructure while also fostering economic development through support of productive industries.