National Interests Threat to regional Rail Transport
31 January 2000
by Tinashe Madava
As prospects of major changes in railway transport in the Southern African Development Community
(SADC) increase, member states are facing a challenge that will test their will to put regional
economic cooperation and integration ahead of national interests.
A record number of newly completed or planned projects designed to improve the movement of rail
transport are under way throughout the region.
The recently completed 350kIn Beitbridge to Bulawayo line (BBR) in Zimbabwe has been hailed as
the start of the southern African "railway revolution". And it highlights both the benefits and
challenges of a number of new rail transport projects for the region.
A Zimbabwean-registered consortium bankrolled the BBR under an agreement which will see the line
ceded to the Zimbabwean government after 30 years. The consortium includes South
Africa's NEDCOR Investment Bank, SANLAM, Genbel Securities Limited, Old Mutual and the Rand
Merchant Bank, in partnership with the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ).
President Robert Mugabe commissioned the US$79million line, which cuts the distance from
Beitdridge to Bulawayo by 200 kIn, in October last year.
"Government will, in pursuance of its policy of engaging private investment, ensure that where
feasible and necessary, similar arrangements are extended to other types of infrastructure such as
roads, domestic airports, water provision and sewerage reticulation."
Chairman ofBBR, Zion Elani, said the ideas for the BBR was fIrSt conceptualised more than 30 years
ago but it was continuously shelved due to financial costs but eventually proceeded under a new
fInancing arrangement known in railway construction parlance as BOT --build, operate and transfer
projects. Other investors are avidly seeking similar projects.
Apart from boosting Bulawayo's image as a major investment hub, the line cuts costs for importers and
exporters through reduced transit and turn-around times for inbound and outbound locomotives and
As one of southern Africa's landlocked countries, Zimbabwe must take advantage of self-flnancing
investment at a time of regional competition for foreign investment, Mugabe said, adding that the
railway line would foster regional integration and trade, especially for South Africa.
But not everyone agrees. Botswana opposed to the development because cargo traffic is diverted from
its railway lines leading to loss of revenue. Presidents Mugabe and Festus Mogae of Botswana, last
year unsuccessfully tried to solve the differences arising from the use of the BBR. The issue has now
been referred to the respective ministries of the two countries to find an amicable solution.
However, this has created even bigger problems. Botswana has now withdrawn its passenger train
service from Gaborone to Bulawayo, emphasising that passenger service alone is too costly to run
without the lucrative cargo services.
Southern African News Features 28 Janua,:
Meanwhile, the Southern African Railway Association (SARA) says South African and ~
have agreed to fewasibbility study for construction of a railway line from South Africa to Mc
The Zimbabwean government is also seeking investors to construct a new railway link betw
Den north of Harare and Kafue in northern Zambia. The line will shorten the distance and ti
for cargo between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mozambique, Zambia and 2
Cwrently, goods from Harare and the Mozambique port city of Beira are routed through
and Victoria Falls, travelling close to a thousand kilometres instead of the much reducl
The Kafue link would also reduce the transit period to the DRC's third largest city, Lubu
three days from seven, making it attractive for the NRZ to lure more business into DRC.
The route will divert freight that was expected to transit via Botswana and South Africa tc
Corridor. Threatened by this anticipated dev~lopment, South Africa, like Botswana, wi
passenger service to Zimbabwe, citing the loss of the lucrative cargo service that will be takl
the Kafue route which will bypass the two countries.
Further complicating the regional transport scene, the Chirundu Corridor running from. ..to .
retain its position as the most cost-effective route from Zambia and the DRC to all easten
ports south of Beira through to Cape Town.
But both the BBR and Botswana Railways (BR) would lose significant traffic should the K
The Kafue link will also enhance the development of the Beira Corridor and make it art
Zimbabwe' s northern neighbours to use Beira as a major port for their imports and exports, ,
benefit Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
A number of other railway developments are also being studied in Botswana, Mozambique
Botswana is seeking investors to build a more direct railway link to Zambia, effectively CirCl
cargo moving through Zimbabwe. Presently, the BR operates a railway link from Francistc
Pan. The plan is to extend this link to Zambia through the Chobe Game Reserve to provi
direct route for cargo from the DRC and Zambia. This will be 150km shorter than Zimbab
While governments in southern Africa have become aware that an efficient and extensivc
.system is central to economic growth, national interests are cwrently playing a maj,
developing a regional railway network. Individual countries will seek ways to protect thei
but what is of utmost importance is that if handled well, this "railway revolution" will
countries in the region. (SARDC)