TRAVELLERS are not often kind about the Tazara Railway, which runs from the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam to Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia. Standing in the queue to buy tickets at the grand Chinese-built terminus in Dar es Salaam, you will likely hear a slew of complaints of delays, cancelled trains and derailments from those who have travelled on the railway before.
Four decades after it saw its first through train, the 1860km 1067mm-gauge Tazara - nicknamed “uhuru” (freedom) railway by the Chinese, Zambian and Tanzanian workers who built it - feels like an ageing Cinderella waiting for her prince. That may change if the efforts by its director Mr Bruno Ching’andu, appointed in 2016, bear fruit.
Last year, Ching’andu embarked on a roadshow to meet potential freight customers, some of whom had previously used the railway before poor service and operational inefficiencies drove them into the arms of waiting truckers. The roadshow extended the length of the railway and included such heavyweight customers as Lafarge Zambia, Impala Terminals and Chambishi Copper Smelter in Kitwe in the heart of Zambia’s Copperbelt.
“Ching’andu has emphasised placing customers at the centre of all marketing efforts,” Tazara spokesman Mr Conrad Simuchile told IRJ. “He has endeavoured to transform Tazara into a customer-centric institution.”
That the director has been lobbying Zambian copper miners for their business is no surprise: although copper was never intended to be the railway’s only major source of traffic when the Tazara opened in 1976, landlocked Zambia’s need for a rail route to the sea that did not depend on then-Apartheid-ruled South Africa was one of the major driving forces behind its construction, and getting that through traffic back will be vital to its survival.
Breaking the chains
It is a small irony that the idea of a railway linking Zambia with the East African coast was first dreamed-up by British colonial officials wanting to build a railway from Cape Town to Cairo but the dream was eventually realised using a $US 500m interest-free loan from China as an anti-imperialist project.
Early surveys, such as that carried out by engineering consultants Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners in 1949, found that the proposed railway would not be economically viable unless the country it traversed was developed. Roads would be better, said the consultants. Meanwhile, a study by the former East African Railways and Harbours Board concluded that it would take 20 years to build a railway across the undeveloped swathes of then Northern Rhodesia (Zambia before independence) and Tanganyika (Tanzania).
Zambia’s president from 1964 to 1991 Mr Kenneth Kaunda and Mr Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s first president after it became a republic in 1962, were champions of self-determination for African countries and an international railway linking the two countries would unlock Zambia’s economy potential and unshackle it from its southern neighbours. At the same time, China was looking to fund projects in Africa. While the diplomatic wrangling took years to resolve, in 1967 Kaunda and Nyerere signed a deal with China’s president Mr Liu Shaoqi in Beijing to build the line, and the Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority (Tazara) was born.
Constructing the railway was a military campaign. Thousands of Chinese engineers were joined by 7000 Tanzanian youths recruited through a national service programme. They were given two weeks of basic training and sent to one of the 12 base camps and divided into work parties. Some of the teams had as few as eight or 10 people, others numbered in the thousands.
The project was a reminder that building railways in Africa is not easy. The survey parties took a year to traverse difficult country full of wild animals, wide rivers and malaria. The first 180km from Dar es Salaam to Mlimba took just a year to build but the next section through the mountains and valleys of the Great Rift slowed construction to a crawl. Almost all of the railway’s 18 tunnels and 46 high bridges are found in the 160km between Mlimba and Makambako.
Progress was easier through the Miombo forests of Zambia, however, and the railway reached the terminus at New Kapiri Mposhi at the end of 1974, four years after the first sod was turned.
While the railway was certainly a technological and social achievement, it was hampered from the start by operational constraints. The line is single track throughout, with long passing loops at manned stations. Poor maintenance means derailments are frequent and cause lengthy delays which ripple to the ends of the line.
It is also saddled with a huge wage bill and efforts to reduce staff numbers have often resulted in crippling strikes. In January, passenger train operations were halted for a week after unionised employees went on strike to demand that the salary dollar exchange parity rate be adjusted.
While the dispute was quickly resolved, no trains ran for a week, putting another dent in the railway’s reputation. Despite its sometimes erratic operation, the railway is a lifeline to the thousands of people who live along its route, places which have poor road networks and in some cases no roads at all.
High operating costs exacerbated by declining freight and passenger revenues mean the Tazara has never been able to repay its debts, currently estimated at $US 500m, although China has long written-off half of the original loan.
“This includes historical construction loans and statutory liabilities, as well as payments owed to retired and current staff,” Simuchile explains.
In 2015, South African economic policy think tank Brenthurst Foundation, carried out a route diagnostics exercise on the Tazara.
“A lot of harsh questions have to be asked,” says foundation director Dr Greg Mills. “Why has the Tazara not worked, can a commercial case be made for it, and can the politics be managed?”
The Tazara was designed to carry 5 million tonnes of freight a year but decades of deficient maintenance coupled with chronic shortages of locomotives and wagons mean current capacity is estimated around 600,000 tonnes per year.
Actual figures have fallen well short of that: in 2014-15, the railway carried just 88,000 tonnes of freight compared with around 630,000 tonnes in 2005.
Meanwhile the staff complement is around 3000, most of whom are Tanzanians. “The railway is hugely overstaffed,” says Mills. “There are endemic shortages of fuel and salaries, and fuel pilfering is part of the business.”
Freight trains usually take four days to travel the length of the line, and while there are supposed to be 10 freight trains a week, only two trains are currently operating.
“The condition of the [passenger] equipment is beyond description,” Mills says, who rode the passenger train from Zambia to Dar es Salaam in 2015.
The railway requires about $US 271m in the short-to-medium term to fix the track and repair - and buy - new wagons and locomotives. Currently Tazara has 13 locomotives available on an average day. These are mostly General Electric units, the original Chinese locomotives having long-since retired. “The total requirement for break-even operations is around 30 reliable locomotives,” Simuchile says.
Funds are also needed for new signalling and communications equipment which Tazara officials say is “practically non-existent”.
Despite the Tazara’s various troubles getting much coverage in the local press, its officials say things are looking up. The railway is expected to carry 5 million passengers and 150,000 tonnes of freight in the current financial year, which ends on June 30.
Along with Ching’andu’s marketing efforts, managers have also improved “operational execution,” Simuchile says. “This is evidenced by improved transit times which have come down from more than 35 days to less than seven days with reduced accident and security risks.”
But increasing demand from customers has laid bare the need to rehabiliate the Tazara’s rolling stock and infrastructure. The pressure to find investors is now acute. China has repeatedly extended financing to Tazara, most recently with a $US 22.4m cash injection in 2015 which, according to Reuters, was earmarked to buy four new locomotives among other measures to boost capacity.
Both governments are actively seeking private backers to “fill the investment gaps” in Tazara’s operations. Simuchile says Tazara is currently in discussion with various parties including potential Chinese backers. “No concrete agreement has been reached with any investor yet and the invitation remains open to any interested potential suitors,” he says.
The multi-million dollar question is whether Tazara can be made to work. Mills believes it can.
One of the keys to making the railway viable will be getting vastly improved service from Zambia Railways which operates Zambia’s north-south main line from the Copperbelt, via Kapiri Mposhi, where it connects with the Tazara, Lusaka and Livingstone, to Zimbabwe. The Tazara will also have to offer a dramatically improved service to compete with the country’s powerful trucking industry.
Mills says there is a commercial case for the Tazara: “It would support development of Zambia and there are lots of good partners.” One quick fix suggested by the Brenthurst Foundation is for businesses to buy paths on the railway to ensure they get a dedicated freight service.
The biggest task, however, will be to sort out the bottleneck at the port of Dar es Salaam. According to a World Bank report, average dwell time for vessels at anchorage and in the port was 20 days in 2012, compared with an international average of three to four days. That inefficiency alone was costing Tanzania and its neighbouring countries more than $US 2.6bn per year.
“It will need real political support,” says Mills. “The railway will need to be recapitalised and it will need a plan.”