Since the last decade, African railways have been undergoing major transformations and experiencing a much-needed revival, almost exclusively due to Chinese investments.
From Nairobi to Mombasa and from Addis Ababa to Djibouti, China is investing, developing, building, and in some cases operating railroads that are changing Africa’s logistic game.
In spite of the fact that many railways drive past exotic safari lodges and even the East African desert, these major projects are more than mere engineering marvels. Despite the critics and different geopolitical perspectives, one has to admit that a shifting equilibrium in construction has been always been caused by strong civilizations, economic opportunities, international alliances, and soft power. It is undoubtfully one of the key drivers of development.
And so presently when it comes to African rail, the overwhelming majority of the development funds come from China and as expected “Railway imperialism” is a topic widely discussed. As of now, no other country is investing nearly as much in rail links as China.
And I don’t mean in Africa, I mean in general. I remember that as a young adult in New York, the “Acela Express”, Amtrak’s sad version of a “high-speed train” would take you from New York to DC with an average ticket price higher than what most airlines would charge you for the same route. Fast forward some 20 years and today the Acela can now take to Boston! A disappointing 250 miles development in a couple of decades. Meanwhile, China developed over 24,000 miles during the same period on its domestic market alone. So, no, I would not say that China’s interest in African rail is a surprise, although it is impossible to ignore the competitive advantage it has been giving them. In a couple of years, China has created the world’s largest high-speed rail network, and it is now exporting that technology to Africa.
Chinese investment in Africa has increased dramatically, from USD 75 million in 2003 to USD $2.7 billion by 2019. The building industry now accounts for more than 30% of China’s investment in Africa.
Two of China’s largest projects in East Africa are the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway and the Kenya Standard Gauge Railway. Consequently, it was the first Chinese-powered railway project in East Africa, as it required the conversion of an obsolete, aging meter-gauge railway.
Chinese contractors supplied the engines, which can withstand altitude changes of 2000 meters, daytime temperatures up to 50 degrees Celsius, and freezing temperatures at night. One of the railway’s promises is to provide comfortable, air-conditioned travel for the much-needed passenger transport in many regions of the continent.
With only 84,000 passengers traveling in 2019, passenger numbers haven’t been as high as expected, and the service hasn’t always been reliable. However, freight transport accounts for a sizable portion of the railway’s long-term potential and may prove to be a valuable asset towards the goal of intra-continental trading.
Construction, supervised by China Road and Bridge Corporation, included the construction of large viaducts, deep excavations, and lengthy embankments to explore the route’s challenging terrain. Developing a project of this size amid Kenya’s gorgeous natural environments has proven to be a tougher balancing act than one might assume. A conservation group opposes two sections of the train that run through national parks, citing concerns that they could endanger wildlife. By raising portions of the railway and adding 14 wildlife passages, designers continued to respond to wildlife needs.
A completed railway system is a game-changer for both trade and transportation in the area. Over 5 million tonnes of cargo were handled by locomotives supplied by China. In fact, African railways are becoming a key part of the China Belt and Road Initiative, and mid-term will connect the continent’s commodities to different regions potentially enhancing the value chain of the natural resources sector.
A major reason why China’s infrastructure development strategy appeals to African countries is that China not only provides financial assistance but also represents a one-stop-shop for everything related to a project.
The Chinese railroads in Africa are laying the groundwork for long-term ties between the two regions, but it is hard to predict how long the money will flow, particularly given the world’s latest geopolitical developments.