GOLD, DIAMONDS, oil, uranium and other minerals in southern Sudan could be used to fund an ambitious plan to build a 4100 km network of standard-gauge lines joining the country to Uganda and Kenya.

Promoted by German rail welding specialist Thormählen Schweisstechnik, the proposals hinged initially on what the company describes as a 'close personal relationship' between Klaus Thormählen and Dr Costello Garang Ring, Commissioner for International Co-Operation of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement. This led to the company 'winning the trust of the new government of southern Sudan and the governments in Kenya and Uganda', which asked it to oversee the management of several major projects. Highest priority goes to construction of the railway, for which the company holds a preliminary agreement.

Originally conceived as a single-track line from Juba across the border into Uganda and Kenya, the proposal grew rapidly into a full-scale network. Branches in southern Sudan would serve the existing railhead at Wau, as well as Tambura, Yambio, Maridi and Yei near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kadugi in the southern Kordofan region and Pochala on the Ethiopian frontier. From Yei a line would run to the railhead at Pakwach in Uganda, with a second international route joining Juba and Gulu. A third cross-frontier route would run from Juba to Lafon and Kapoeta, reaching Lokichokio in Kenya. This would continue down the Great Rift Valley to Lodwar and Lokichar, eventually joining the metre-gauge Kenya Railways network at Rongai, west of Nakuru.

Thormälen Schweisstechnik expects the SPLM to form a provisional government in southern Sudan by the end of October, a move that would allow the preliminary agreement to come into force. This would pave the way for a donors' conference, likely to be held during November in Oslo, to which investors from Europe and the USA would be invited. The company suggests that funding for the scheme would then be secure enough to permit construction to start early next year. The target is to complete the line to Rongai within six years, at which time there is likely to be a referendum on southern Sudan gaining full autonomy.

Hardly less ambitious is a scheme that surfaced during August for a network of routes that would bring rail access to Rwanda and Burundi. Starting from the metre-gauge Ugandan railhead at Kasese, lines would serve Goma and Bukavu on the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, the Rwandan capital Kigali, and Burundi's capital at Bujumbura. Another line would run northwest from Kasese into the DRC to reach Mambasa and Bunja, west of Lake Albert. The proposal also calls for a line to be built approximately along the line of the Equator to Kisangani on the Congo River, which provides an export route to the Atlantic Ocean.

The proposals were discussed at a high-level meeting of transport ministers in Nairobi last month, when representatives from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi initialled an agreement setting up a Transit Transport Co-Ordination Authority. With the support of the African Union and the African Development Bank, the plans could prove to be a valuable step towards opening up the region to international trade.

The challenges facing these two extraordinary projects are formidable, not least the fact that the Ugandan lines to both Pakwach and Kasese are out of use and need extensive rehabilitation. The state of the lines in southern Sudan is reported to be little better. Nevertheless, the vision is that commerce and development generated by the railway could help bring stability, and an end to strife in what are notoriously trouble-torn regions.