THERE was a small but telling moment at a recent handover of new salt wagons to Botswana Railways (BR) when the Transport and Communications Ministry's permanent secretary, Mr Thato Raphaka, told railway managers: "I urge you to look after these goods jealously."

In most countries, Botswana included, the arrival of new wagons would go largely unnoticed, and certainly without the fanfare of an official handover. But the delivery of the batch of 160 salt hoppers from South Africa last December demonstrates that the troubles which almost crippled the small state-owned railway are fast becoming a memory.

A decade ago BR was in turmoil. For much of the 20th century, the 640km-long main line, from Mafikeng, South Africa to the Botswana/Zimbabwe border at Plumtree, was little more than a struggling, underfunded, transit railway. Transit traffic peaked at 1.1 million tonnes in 1999, according to a USAid report in 2000. By 2005, this traffic had slumped to a reported 150,000 tonnes. The rest had been lost to the privately-operated Beit Bridge Railway (BBR), which offers a more direct route from South Africa to the rail hub in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, bypassing Botswana.

Passenger services were also struggling despite investment in new rolling stock following the takeover of the railway from National Railways of Zimbabwe by the Botswana government in 1987 and the formation of BR. After an initial expansion, services gradually dwindled and then stopped altogether in 2009.

BR's prospects were so bleak that by the middle of the last decade, brokers were regularly seen sniffing around the corridors at BR's Mahalapye headquarters, hoping to snap up the railway's locomotives for a song.

"Those locomotives are basically new - and [BR] is hardly using them," a visiting American railwayman noted at the time. It would have been an ignominious but not unexpected end for such a young railway.

Transit traffic accounted for roughly half of BR's tonnage according to the USAid report. Locally-generated traffic mostly comprised coal to the smelters at Selebi Phikwe and, more recently, to the soda ash plant at Sua Pan.

BotswanaFreight tonnage improved with the opening in 1992 of a new 174km branch line from Francistown to the Makgadigade pans salt and soda ash deposits. Inbound traffic consisted of cement, fuel and grain, commodities that to this day, along with a daily container train from Johannesburg, still account for the bulk of inbound train movements.

In 2006, the railway embarked on a turnaround strategy which saw the investment of millions of dollars due to a commodity boom that may yet turn BR into a heavy-haul railway.

Botswana is sitting on massive and as yet largely untapped coal deposits. Reserves at Mmamabula, near Mahalapye, are estimated at 2.4 billion tonnes with an extractable tonnage of 1.5 billion, while the reserves at Morupule exceed 5 billion tonnes with a potential export capacity of about 100 million tonnes a year.

Rail operators in neighbouring countries are already vying for this traffic. South Africa's Transnet Freight Rail (TFR) hopes to soon start running two 35-wagon trains each week from Morupule. In the meantime, TFR is currently running 45-wagon limestone trains from PPC's Lime Acres quarry in South Africa to the Morupule B thermal power station, boosting BR's annual tonnage to 250,000 tonnes.

BR also recently operated a test coal train for African Energy Resources on the Botswana - Zimbabwe - Mozambique corridor which could see coal trains running on this eastern route via Bulawayo and Chicualacuala to Maputo. BR board member Mrs Lesedi Moakhofi recently confirmed that there was "excess track capacity of 1.7 million tonnes ... to move commodities in that corridor."

The quest to transport Mmamabula coal traffic by rail is beginning to shape up as a battle of wills between TFR and the supporters of the ambitious Trans-Kalahari Railway (TKR), a proposed 1500km heavy-haul line running west from the Botswana coalfields to connect with an existing railhead at Gobabis in Namibia.

TFR CEO Mr Siyabonga Gama told delegates at the Coaltrans Southern Africa conference in May that Mmamabula would be linked to South Africa's own heavy-haul coal line to Richards Bay by 2020, using a new line to be built to the untapped Waterberg coalfield adjoining Mmamabula and then on to Botswana.

With Transnet set to spend Rand 300bn ($US 29.8bn) on new projects, locomotives and wagons this decade, its proposed line from Waterberg could reach Botswana before the first spike is even driven on the proposed $US 10bn TKR project which has been under discussion for nearly 30 years.

The TKR's backers may have taken heart in recent months after Namibian authorities said the project had been agreed "in principle." Namibia is under pressure from local business to fix TransNamib, the ailing state-owned railway which has suffered from years of scant investment (see below).

As well as the new line from Botswana, the TKR project will involve complete rehabilitation of the TransNamib line from Gobabis, via the capital Windhoek, to a new $N 20bn ($US 2bn) port at Walvis Bay. The link to South Africa would make better sense as it is shorter and Botswana would be exposed to less financial risk. However, it is uncertain whether there is sufficient capacity in South Africa for TFR to be able to haul large quantities of coal from Morupule.

Either way, BR will continue to benefit from a rise in freight tonnages while Botswana's neighbours jockey for a piece of the action. Cecil John Rhodes would be pleased.

Namibia's riddle of the sands

IF the proposed Trans-Kalahari Railway (TKH) project ever gets off the ground, it may be the shot in the arm that Namibia's ailing national railway, TransNamib, desperately needs. TransNamib is battling with a raft of problems, the biggest of which are a crippling maintenance backlog and a severe shortage of motive power.

After a series of derailments, the TransNamib network is beset with speed restrictions, while the country's roads are being hammered by trucks, prompting a warning in the local press from Namibian Logistics Association chairman Mr Willie du Toit: "Our roads are crumbling and this is a disaster for the logistics and tourism sectors. We are also in dire need of a proper and reliable railway system." When a truck operator calls for a decent railway, it is clear that the transport situation is desperate.

Many of TransNamib's problems stem from its history. The network was run by South African Railways until Namibia gained its independence in 1990. Critics say the last comprehensive maintenance was carried out just before the South Africans left. What is certain is that the elderly fleet of GE-built U20C locomotives that the South Africans left behind still form the backbone of the TransNamib fleet. Chinese-built locomotives acquired in batches in the last decade have been a disaster and the stripped hulks of this failed venture can be seen parked at the diesel depot in the capital.

Some local shippers are resting their hopes on the TKR, not least because a decent deepwater port linked to a viable heavy-haul railway would enable Namibia to compete with South Africa and soon Angola, when the Benguela Railway rehabilitation is finally completed, as a transit country for the landlocked countries of southern Africa.

But TransNamib needs better government funding. Company secretary Ms Eugenia Taylor-Tjaronda told the New Era newspaper that while TransNamib had spent $N 20m ($US 1.9m) on maintenance between 2006 and 2012, the government had contributed just $N 7m over the same period.

TransNamib has been trying to restore the Lüderitz - Seeheim line in the south of the country. The route traverses the shifting sands of the Namib Desert and keeping the tracks clear of sand dunes is a Sisyphean task. The line is being laid with tubular track but observers wonder if there will be enough traffic from the tiny fishing port of Lüderitz to justify its repair.