August 25, 2014 7:00 pm JST

China-aided trans-Africa railway line likely to transform regional trade

KEN MORIYASU, Nikkei staff wrier

DALIAN, China -- A century old British dream of building a transcontinental railway connecting the Atlantic and Indian oceans is becoming a reality with Chinese financing. Cutting through the belly of Angola, passing through the copper belt of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia, then finally reaching a massive hub port being built in Tanzania, the proposed railway has the potential to integreate countries that until now were divided by a language barrier left by the British, the French and the Portugese. 

     By upgrading and linking railways built by the former colonial powers, the transcontinental railway will represent a major landmark in China's investment and development assistance in Africa.     

     China's investment in Africa has grown rapidly in recent years, in tandem with a surge in bilateral trade. 

Restoration

Earlier this month, the state-run China Railway Construction finished repair and restoration work on the 1,344km Benguela railway, which connects the Atlantic port of Lobito in Angola to Luau, an Angolan town on the border with Congo.

     The Chinese company has replaced the 1,067mm narrow gauge track laid down in 1929 by Portugal, Angola's former colonial ruler, with a 1,435mm standard gauge railway.

     Angola has spent $1.83 billion in mostly oil-backed loans from China to rebuild and restart the railway as it works to recover from a 27-year civil war that ended in 2002. Service along most of the route was discontinued after 1975, at the end of colonial rule and the start of the civil war. 

     This in turn cut Angolan rail ties with lines in what is today Congo and Zambia. The lines in these two countries are also being upgraded, and are expected to finish in 2018.

    Reconstruction of the Benguela railway began in 2006 with a $300 million loan from the China International Fund. When completed, the project will reopen the route from Lobito to Zambia for the first time in four decades.

     The replacement of the old, colonial-era narrow gauge track with a standard gauge rail will also increase the speed of the trains on the line, from 30kph to 90kph.

New dynamic

China built the 1,860km Tazara railway, also known as the Tanzam railway, in the 1970s, which connects Tanzania with Zambia. Linking the Benguela and Tazara railway lines will create a transcontinental railway between the east and west coasts of Africa.

     Copper from the border area between Congo and Zambia, both of which lack major sea ports, is transported mostly by truck to ports in South Africa. 

     The new railway across the continent will significantly quicken the transportation of copper from these two countries to both the Indian and Atlantic oceans. It will help the two countries' mainstay copper industries to cut costs and spread risks. Copper is the biggest export of both countries.

     China is also building a huge new port in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, on the Indian Ocean. Copper and other raw materials will be carried by the railway to the new port, for shipment to China.

     The port project is part of the infrastructure deal Chinese President Xi Jinping signed with the Tanzanian government during his visit to the country in March 2013. Tanzania was the first destination on Xi's African tour.

     The port, designed to be an alternative to the country's Dar es Salaam Port, could become a rival to regional maritime transport hubs such as the Kenyan port of Mombasa and South Africa's Durban.

     "China is now joining the dots in Africa and forming lines; lines that are cross-continental and will potentially change the earlier trade, investment trends laid down by the colonialists," says Lauren Johnston, a freelance researcher for the Economist Intelligence Unit who specializes in the relations between China and Africa.