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Ambitious vision in East Africa

19 Jun 2008

AFRICA: Following closely on the aborted multi-billion-dollar scheme to replace Nigeria's dilapidated 1 067 mm gauge railway with a new standard-gauge network, the East African Community has announced a 'master plan' to do something similar with the metre-gauge lines in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

According to Magaga Alot from the EAC secretariat, consultants have been appointed to study the viability of 15 new lines, with an emphasis on closing the gaps in international trade corridors. Eight are envisaged in Tanzania, in addition to the extension from Isaka to Kigali in Rwanda. Further routes would connect northern Kenya to both Ethiopia and Sudan, whilst Uganda would gain four international connections to southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania. Burundi and Rwanda, which joined the EAC in 2007, have been asked to contribute proposals.

EAC Deputy Secretary for Rail Transport Elijah Nduati told Nairobi's Business Daily on April 28 that 'a taskforce is in place and is today expected to brief on a finalised feasibility study.' The following day Kenya announced its own contribution to the master plan, which would see its 1 918 km metre-gauge network replaced by 2 156 km of standard gauge over the next decade. With Tanzania having announced last year that it was keen to see its railways electrified, Kenya too has decided that electrification is the way forward.

As always, the critical issue would appear to be the thorny business of funding. Kenya and Uganda could barely scrape together enough to support the transfer of operations on the existing line to Rift Valley Railways last year.

And in Nigeria, former President Obasanjo is the subject of an embarrassing Senate investigation to find out what happened to the large sums poured into the Nigerian transport sector during his term of office. Last year he signed an US$8bn contract for reconstructing the 1 315 km Lagos - Kano line to standard gauge and building a new loop from Minna via Abuja. An initial 'mobilisation' fee of US$250m has already been paid to China Civil Engineering Construction Co, but now the whole package has come unstuck following the discovery that the funding was 'irregularly assigned'.

After studying the situation in Nigeria last year, the World Bank concluded that traffic levels on the Lagos - Kano route did not justify spending US$8bn, and that better value for money could be realised by upgrading the existing line. It will be interesting to see what the Bank has to say about East Africa's ambitious master plan.