Trans-African Road and Railway Dreams

The idea of a North-South, Trans-African motorway, emerged when the construction of the Cape Town-Cairo railway line, cherished by the British, first came to a halt in the 19th century. An expedition first travelled the route, using Crossley cars, in 1924. That was the first successful trip from the South African town to the Egyptian capital. Exactly 90 years later, in 2014, the Egyptian government announced that the technical handover of the Cairo-Cape Town motorway was due soon. The Minister of Transport promised test operation for the beginning of 2015, though that has still not taken place.

The 50-year plan

The construction of the North-South motorway began in the 1980s, with the encouragement of the African Union, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the African Development Bank. The planned length of the road is 10,228 kilometres. The motorway crosses Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan, connecting the southern and northern parts of the continent.

The continent is to be crossed by motorways not only from north to south, but also from east to west. Imagine what an adventure it would be able to get to Djibouti on the coast of the Gulf of Aden directly and smoothly from Dakar on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. Or, in another direction, from Mombasa to Lagos? The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa came up with the plan for that almost 50 years ago. The original objective was to boost regional trade not support travellers seeking adventure. The proposal for the Trans-African Highway (TAH) was prepared with the intention of integrating the economies of the countries that had earlier gained independence. The proposal was made in 1971 and implementation has been making slow progress. 

Roads around the Earth

The plan is truly ambitious: nine roads were envisaged, connecting remote cities such as Tripoli on the Mediterranean Sea, Windhoek in Namibia and Cape Town in South Africa. A network of sixty thousand kilometres was planned, which would in fact be long enough to reach around the World. That would be the backbone of the continent, with branches coming off it into all the countries of Africa. Some roads would only stretch to the border of the country, while others would be integrated into the network of existing motorways.

However, there are many factors impeding construction. The situation is better in the north than in the south, but in the middle part of Africa, isolated from the world, only less than half of the planned section has been completed. Overall, important links are still missing from each of the nine routes. The standards also vary in the different countries, so the quality of the constructed roads also varies. The condition of the sections of the motorway that have been completed is deteriorating, as they are not maintained by anyone. Nor are the terrain, the climate or the regional conflicts, beneficial to the construction, either. The completion of the construction is the responsibility of the economic development programme of the African Union, the ‘New Partnership for African Development’.

In a sea of problems

In the meantime, the issue of Trans-African roads and infrastructure is becoming increasingly urgent, especially as the population grows and the appetite for investment increases. The African roads are used to transport goods worth billions of dollars each year. In the meantime, less than 40 percent of the rural African population live within 2 kilometres of a road that can be used in all seasons. According to the World Bank, this is the lowest ratio in the developing world. The lack, and poor quality, of roads increases the transportation time to critical areas, as well as the cost, preserving the disparities between North and Middle Africa and poverty in certain Sub-Saharan countries.

That is not the only problem, though. The poor roads also kill. There may be the fewest vehicles in the world in the Sub-Saharan countries but the number of fatalities in traffic accidents is still the highest there, according to the competent World Bank experts. The situation can only get worse if the economy grows but the roads are not improved. 

According to experts, the construction of the Trans-African motorways is progressing so slowly because neighbouring countries are not consulting with each other and each progresses at its own pace and according to its own capabilities. In the middle of the continent, preference is given to roads leading to the nearest ports rather than roads linking them to other countries on the continent, while nobody is willing to build towards the deserts.

Dusty Trans-African plans

No one is co-ordinating the plans. Even though a dedicated organisation was created originally, that came to an end in the 1980s. There are promising developments now; the African Union is trying to harmonise standards and construction. Nobody can dictate the spending of the budget resources of the poorer countries though, where funding is needed for so many things and even if delays cost a lot, it is likely that we will have to wait for quite a while before the major Trans-African highways are completed.

As for the alternatives, over the past few years, the plans for the construction of the Trans-African railway have been dusted off. News were published in 2012 of a cross-border railway planned by South Africa. The Transnet railway company was first targeted at Mozambique, Swaziland and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to be continued by the construction of a North-South railway corridor to the Mediterranean Sea. According to the original plans USD 40 billion has been dedicated to these concepts up until 2019. According to the company manager, it was not easy to convince the private investors that they should consider a 15-20-year payback period, especially in the interest of the state or state-owned companies.

Safari and luxury railways

Although this particular project is still a dream, albeit one that, in the implementation of which more and more foreigners (including the Chinese) are eager to participate, there is already a railway service in Africa which is one of the most elegant operating in the world. The Pride of Africa offers a luxurious train service, a combination of safari and a luxury trip across Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. On one of the most luxurious trains in the world, passengers can occupy 16-square-metre, air-conditioned suite compartments, each with a bathroom and a mini bar. Every year, one extraordinary, 14-day trip is organised that runs across Pretoria, Kruger National Park, the Victoria Falls and Tanzania’s capital, Dar es Salaam. The cheapest ticket for that journey costs USD 8,900.

The ‘Blue Train’, operating between Pretoria and Cape Town, is another miracle. When the construction of the railway began in the 1920s, the original plan was to connect Cape Town and Cairo. In the end, money stepped in and the rails were used to carry diamonds and gold from Johannesburg to Cape Town, the port of departure for England. The train, then operating under the name ‘Union Express’, was equipped with a luxurious restaurant carriage first in 1933, followed by air-conditioned compartments in 1939. However, the express stopped running soon after the outbreak of World War II., and was put back into service only in 1946. That was when it was also officially named the ‘Blue Train’, due to the characteristic royal blue colour of its livery.

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