ACCORDING TO Spoornet CEO Siyabonga Gama, delays to freight trains at international borders on the Cape gauge network serving southern Africa are costing the region US$48bn a year.

Gama told the ninth AfricaRail conference near Johannesburg on June 28 that it could take up to 12 days to get a train cleared through the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe at Beitbridge. And Shulami Qalinge, manager of Spoornet’s national operations centre, pointed out that when trains are stationary on the Zimbabwean side of the border thieves plunder cargos of maize and petrol. ’You cannot allow that to happen - it’s criminal’, he protested.

Gama’s solution to the border problem was a single inspection standard for freight trains or ’borderless communities’, though there seems little prospect of the latter happening. For South African Transport Minister Jeff Radebe, this was just one reason why the average cost of using rail transport in landlocked African countries was 20% higher than in developing countries elsewhere, according to a 2001 survey by the UN Conference on Trade & Development. In fact, a subsequent panel discussion on logistics concluded that logistics costs in Africa were three to four times higher than its first-world trading partners.

Disappointingly, Radebe laid much of the blame on ’colonial railway development’ with its emphasis on ’extraction of minerals’ and the existence of four different gauges, rather than focusing on the way freight is handled today. He told the conference that 16% more lorries were using South Africa’s roads now than three years ago, but in the same time Spoornet’s useable locomotive fleet had decreased by 33% and its wagon stock by 28%.

Building new links between countries was another theme espoused by Radebe, as well as regauging to create ’seamless corridors’. As it happened, Uganda’s Foreign Minister Okello Oryem had announced three days earlier that the government had signed an agreement for China to finance the proposed new line between Pakwach in Uganda and Juba in southern Sudan (p440). Chinese President Wen Jiabao has been on a seven-country tour around Africa looking for opportunities to develop infrastructure in exchange for much-needed natural resources. Possibly as a result of his efforts, China International Fund Ltd is reported to be helping to fund the rehabilitation of the Benguela Railway in Angola.

But the truth is that Africa needs to get its existing railways working efficiently before building new links. Staff manning the Sheltam stand at the AfricaRail exhibition were enthusiastic about their purchase of 10 more GE diesel locomotives, and the recently-awarded five-year concession to operate the 2350 km Kenya - Uganda line. Kenyan Transport Minister Chirau Ali Mwakwere confirmed on June 28 that the official handover of the former East African Railway line to Rift Valley Railways would take place on August 1.