An ambitious plan to revamp and extend the Tanzania-Zambia Railway (Tazara) to four other countries is in the pipeline.
Government officials from Tanzania, China and Zambia met in Dar es Salaam last week to talk about the ailing infrastructure link that runs from Dar es Salaam to Kapiri- Mposhi in Zambia.
The meeting recommended major renovations to the rusty narrow gauge railway line and approve of plans to link Tazara to Tanzania’s multibillion-dollar Bagamoyo port, as well as to Malawi, DR Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.
According to Rowland Msiska, secretary to the Zambia Cabinet, the plan is part of the China-Africa co-operation agenda discussed at the Forum On China-Africa Co-operation in Johannesburg in December 2015. Mr Msiska attended the Dar es Salaam meeting.
The revamping and extension will be financed by China, although the cost of the project was not disclosed.
Southern DR Congo is already connected to Tazara through Zambia Railways, which is also a narrow gauge like Tazara.
“Rwanda, Burundi and Eastern DR Congo will be linked through the Seleka-Mpulungu section of Tazara in Zambia, where the construction study has already been completed and is only awaiting financing,” said Bruno Ching’andu, Tazara CEO.
Malawi will be connected through the planned Chipata-Selenje railway link. However, the study for that link has not been completed.
Permanent Secretary in Zambia’s Ministry of Transport and Communications Misheck Lungu said experts decided Tazara should be changed from the narrow Cape gauge of 1,067mm width to the wider 1,435mm standard gauge, in line with other parts of Africa.
However, he said, the envisaged transformation is a long-term plan at the moment.
Mr Ching’andu said the plan to connect Tazara with the Bagamoyo port will allow major companies in Dar es Salaam to connect to the port to ease shipping of cargo.
However, Tanzania’s Chief Secretary John Kijazi said his government has taken measures to improve efficiency at the Dar es Salaam port, which is currently the main gateway for the Tazara railway.
“The government is working closely with China in another major project that will involve the construction of the Bagamoyo port and its special economic zone (SEZ) and a 40-kilometre railway line to link the Bagamoyo SEZ with the Tazara railway line at Pugu,” said Mr Kijazi.
The plans to revamp the railway line come after serious infrastructural deteriorations were found by the Chinese firm Third Railway Survey and Design Institute Group (TSDI), which conducted a survey between June and December 2012.
The 2012 investigation, whose report The EastAfrican has seen, found that Tazara’s accumulated losses amounted to about $170 million with an assets-liability ratio of 55 per cent, according to Tony Gao, the TSDI senior engineer who presented the findings.
The TSDI survey also found that lack of repair had resulted in the deterioration of 114 sections covering 192 kilometres, which were prone to accidents.
“TSDI found that radio frequencies were not operational at night, power equipment and electrical equipment at interlocking stations had exceeded their life span, while semaphore signalling equipment was not functional. The locomotives were ‘seriously’ aged; coaches and wagons were very old; facilities in workshops were outdated and most were no longer functional for a major repair cycle,” said Mr Gao.
The researchers concluded that the factors contributing to Tazara’s operational failure included weaknesses in management.
“Failure to reach a consensus between different management levels may lead to poor decision-making,” said the research document presented at the meeting.
Mr Lungu told The EastAfrican the current Tazara debt was around $787 million.
Mr Ching’andu said Lusaka and Dar es Salaam had agreed in principle to absorb the bad debt in order to allow the joint railway line to resume on a clean slate.
After the absorption of the debts, Mr Ching’andu said Tazara may consider listing at the stock exchange to raise more capital.
Permanent secretary in Tanzania’s Ministry of Works, Transport and Communications Leonard Chamuriho said experts suggested inviting the private sector into the Tazara business operations mix, where companies or individuals would be allowed to operate private wagons on government tracks.
“The government would own the railway infrastructure, but investors would be allowed to run private trains on the tracks for a fee,” he said.
This could see private train operators run transportation schedules on government tracks from as far away as South Africa to Dar es Salaam because the entire SADC region is linked with the narrow Cape gauge tracks.