MADAGASCAR: The arrival of five Chinese-built locomotives is a significant step in the revitalisation of the island's railways, which were in a parlous state just five years ago.

State-owned Madagascar Northern railway Rncfm had just one operable locomotive and its employees had not been paid for seven months when a 25-year concession agreement was signed in 2002.

The following year the 763 km network was taken over by Madarail, a company owned by African rail concession operator Comazar with minority stakes held by the Malagasy government and various banks.

Complete abandonment of the metre-gauge rail system had only recently been contemplated, and the new operator's priority was to rehabilitate and expand the rolling stock fleet to begin earning revenue. The average age of the vehicles was 30 years, and only 12 locomotives were functional, seven having been acquired second-hand from Portugal.

Catapulted into the 21st century

Dramatic changes have since been brought about with assistance from the World Bank and European Investment Bank.

This was underlined with the delivery in January of five diesel locomotives built by China Southern's Sifang works. These enable Madarail to 'envision an increase in productivity by 50% in comparison with last year,' according to the railway's Operations Manager Théodore Rasolonjatovo.

The US$56m cost was financed by EIB and the World Bank, whose International Development Association provided a 40-year interest-free loan. The new locos will 'permit a load of 450 tonnes and go faster', says Rasolonjatovo. The top speed will be 75 km/h, though for now Madarail is limiting the trailing load to 280 tonnes because of the steep grades on the route between the capital Antananarivo and the Indian Ocean port of Toamasina.

'I was greatly moved when I was at the unloading of these new locomotives', said Gervais Rakotomamonjisoa, an exper-ienced driver who has been appointed to head staff training. 'The availability of these five machines confirms my confidence in the future of the railway.'

The locos have brought significant technological advances to Madagascar. 'The technology that is put in place on-board makes things much easier for us in terms of driving and diagnosing malfunctions', said Rakotomamonjisoa. 'A trip computer managed by a touch-screen has catapulted the trains into the 21st century.'

Strategic asset

The World Bank describes the Northern network as a 'national asset' because of the way it connects strategic points. The 371 km main line links the capital Antananarivo with Toamasina, the largest port in Madagascar. A 153 km line from the capital serves the industrialised region of Antsirabe, and a 167 km branch from Moramanga to Lake Alaotra connects chromite mines and one of the major rice-growing areas to the main line.

The government decided to award a concession for the network in 1995, under a wider market reform programme. Studies began in 1996 with World Bank support and advice from CPCS Transcom, and in October 2002 Madarail was awarded a 25-year concession to operate the network from January 1 2003. The contract is extendable in 10-year periods (RG 11.02 p668).

The World Bank assisted the establishment of Madarail with a total of US$50m of funding, while EIB provided a 20-year loan worth €11m. In addition to the new locos, 175 km of track has been rehabilitated and 235 km upgraded, with five bridges strengthened and two replaced. In addition, Madarail recommenced regular passenger services in March between Toamasina and Moramanga.

Five-fold growth

'The railway has a significant potential to improve transport links,' believes Robert Blake, the World Bank's Country Manager for Madagascar. 'Over the last five years, figures have shown an impressive development with a five-fold increase in the tonnage transported.'

Cement, food, household goods and containerised traffic are expected to account for 45% of the rail freight tonnage this year, chrome 32% and fuels 23%.

An annual freight capacity of 700 000 tonnes is planned for 2011. China Northern recently won a contract to supply 66 hopper wagons, while China Southern is to deliver 20 tank and 20 flat wagons by March 2009. 'The purchase of the new locomotives will ensure that Madarail collects enough receipts to meet all the operational expenditures and thus becomes cost-effective', said Patrick Claes, Managing Director of Madarail.

Indirect advantages from an efficient rail system include a reduction in transport costs and fewer lorries on the country's roads, and therefore a decrease in accidents and infrastructure damage.

'The impact is also positive in terms of energy and environment, as the quantity of the fuel used as well as the pollution generated per tonne of goods is lower than on the road', according to Pierre Graftieaux, senior transport expert at the World Bank. 'This is important for the balance of payments, in so far as the country imports its fuels.'

  • CAPTION: The five China Southern locomotives will permit trailing loads and operating speeds to be increased.
  • CAPTION: Ordered in 2006, the five Bo-Bo diesel locos built by China Southern were delivered to the port of Toamasina during January. They have 12V 4000 R41 engines supplied by MTU.
  • MAP: The 763 km northern network is operated by Madarail under a 25-year concession. The isolated 160 km Fianarantsoa-Côte Est Railway to the south is managed separately.