China's forays into Africa’s rail networks

The Chinese rail connection is omnipresent in the 21st Century transport industry of the African continent – and the strong economic sinews, not least in transport, are showing signs of strengthening all the time.

Tazara Mbeya Station
Tazara Mbeya Station

Zimbabwe has gone Chinese in a big way. The economic evidence is noticeable in all sorts of spheres – from cheap goods on city streets to the operating of Chinese-built commercial aircraft, the MA 60, and also railway deals, some as yet unfulfilled.

President Robert Mugabe’s “Look East Policy” has long been in top gear with his government having antagonised traditional European and American connections with the controversial agrarian “reform” programme over the past decade.

The National Railways of Zimbabwe has begun replacing 144 km of time-expired permanent way with rail secured from China. The hardware for a wagon-tracking system has been sourced from China too. The Zimbabwean government would like to procure new motive power and passenger rolling stock from China, but has not been able to raise more than the deposit for such much-needed acquisitions at this point.

Forty years ago the Chinese moved into central Africa to build the 1 860km Tanzania-Zambia “Great Uhuru” Railway, TAZARA. The continent got nervous! Back at that time, Southern Africa was politically bubbling. The southern part of the continent still thought in terms of a Westminster style of democratic government as the decolonisation of the remaining remnants of European rule – England and Portugal – was vehemently taking place.

“Watch out for the Yellow Peril…” rolled off people’s stereotyping tongues. In the early 1970s, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was in a state of economic siege with the rising phoenix of the Chinese and Russian-backed liberation struggle, and Portugal was getting out of is colonies smartly.

Today, China has emerged – along with India – as a new economic force in the East. It is that force which is cutting an overt swath across the African continent today. It is certainly noticeable in the transportation industry, prolifically in rail.

TransNamib Holdings operates seventeen Chinese-built Sifang SDD6 type diesel-electrical units.
TransNamib Holdings operates seventeen Chinese-built Sifang SDD6 type diesel-electrical units.

Namibia’s national rail network was a hand-me-down at independence from the previous South African Railways. TransNamib Holdings Ltd inherited General Electric U20C type diesel locomotives. The latter fleet is now 40 years old. China has produced new diesel motive power and rolling stock for TransNamib.

Cummins Engine Company Limited was contracted to install its QSK 60-L model engine into the new Chinese-built diesel electric locomotives – the type SDD6 – that are in service. Such deals have certainly benefited South Africa’s division of Cummins which supplied the power units from its regional base.

Botswana’s rail network has not escaped potential Chinese influence. Speaking at the signing of a P104 million loan agreement with the Export-Import Bank of China in Gaborone in past years, Botswana’s Assistant Works and Transport Minister appealed for help with the proposed Trans-Kgalagadi railway linking Botswana with Namibia.

The facility would help Botswana move coal exports bound for China. Botswana’s government also asked for financial assistance in constructing workshops capable of servicing locomotives. Sending diesel motive power to neighbouring countries for attention has meant they are away for as long as a year – another opportunity perchance for the Chinese railway industry?

Angola’s southern port of Namibe was a hive of activity back in 2006 with a large consignment of Chinese machinery arriving for the rehabilitation of the 1 067mm gauge system CFN railway from the port to the hinterland provinces of Huila, Namibe and Kuando-Mubango. This rail rebuild is heading towards completion. The port of Lobito has seen the delivery of equipment for another Angolan system – Caminhos de Ferro de Benguela (CFB) which traverses the former Portuguese colony from west to east – for over 1 300km – to join up with the rail network in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

China is the world’s biggest importer of copper which both the DRC and Zambia have! Angola’s Benguela rail network is a behemoth task, not only in its size but the dangerous vestiges of a long civil war – the landmines – presented a formidable obstacle to clear-up.

The supply of new Chinese diesel motive power, similar to TransNamib’s locos, to Caminhos de Ferro de Luanda in the north has already happened. China International Fund Ltd is picking up most of the tab for its rejuvenation.

Cummins once again scored the power-unit order for this batch of Chinese diesels. Angola is China’s second largest African trading partner after South Africa, supplying over 13% of China’s crude oil imports. China is in Angola for the long haul—or at least as long as the oil continues to flow. It has extended $11 billion in loans to Angola, more than the World Bank.

As mentioned, the Tanzania-Zambia Railway was built between 1970 and 1975 by the Chinese, funded then by a $500 million interest free loan from the People’s Republic. Last year, the Chinese government cancelled 50 per cent of the unpaid loan used to construct the Tanzania Zambia Railway. China has now granted a soft loan of $39.9 m for strengthening the Tanzania and Zambia Railways Authority (TAZARA) whose performance has drastically gone down.

The loan will reportedly be spent in 11 areas – including the purchase of six new locomotive engines, rehabilitation of nine more, the purchase of 90 new wagons and the rehabilitation of four cranes and two rescue cranes. Other requirements are the purchase of raw materials for the permanent way, the procurement of spare parts for 1 200 wagons and covering the training costs of workers from different departments as well as professional staff.

At a meeting in August 2006 with members of the Rwanda Patriotic Front led by Secretary General Francois Ngarambe, the Chinese Communist Party’s Wu Guanzheng confirmed China’s intention to fund a study into the feasibility of building a railway in Rwanda, a country currently restricted to road transport. The railway, designed to link Bujumbura in Burundi, Kigali in Rwanda and Isaka on Tanzania’s Tabora-Mwanza branch, would provide Indian Ocean access.

South Africa has always been blessed with being the region’s “economic peach” in terms of the rail industry. There is not much South Africa does not manufacture for itself and for export in this specialised industry. It is also involved, through its parastatal utility Transnet Rail Engineering, in marketing railway products up the continent.

Nevertheless, industrial railway operators in South Africa have procured Chinese product. Pretoria-based industrial railways’ operator, African Rail & Traction Services (AR&TS), has procured diesel units from China Railway Materials Import & Export Company. Assmang, Anglo Platinum and Douglas Colliery are some of the industrial rail locations of the potent Chinese SDD2 diesel-electric type in heavy-haul work.

One should point out that West Africa and Francophone Africa are seeing a growing Chinese economic presence too – only recently CSR Yangtze Co Ltd. delivered the first batch of 44 ore wagons to Gabon.

The rehabilitation, modernisation and hopefully overall improved efficacy of Southern and Central African rail systems must surely impact favourably on SADC’s economic regional framework.

China, as the world’s second largest economic power-house today, does fancy Africa’s bounteous offerings in minerals, raw materials and oil – hence the muscling and toning of those economic sinews. Sadly, human rights do not come too high into the moral equation of whom the Chinese will engage in business. Furthermore, China’s poor reputation in the field of basic human rights in its business ventures on the continent has often been highlighted too in the media.

Post published in: Africa News

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *