JANUARY 20 was a big day at TransNamib, Namibia's state-owned rail operator. That morning, the railway held a ceremony to welcome into service five refurbished diesel locomotives, the first of a fleet of 10 that the company plans to have running by the middle of this year.
On most railways, the arrival of five second-hand locomotives would barely raise a flicker of interest; in Namibia it made the national newspapers. TransNamib was pleased - much of its recent press coverage has been intensely negative, the result of internal squabbles and politicking and a number of bad accidents and derailments, most of them caused by the rotten state of the track.
To put the deal in perspective, the arrival of the five locomotives refurbished by South Africa's Transnet Engineering in a $N 71m ($US 5.9m) deal would boost the railway's fleet of operational units by more than 20%. Out of TransNamib's fleet of some 70 locomotives, barely 18 were operational in late January and those that were running were in bad shape.
The deal marked a turning point for TransNamib, which has suffered from chronic underfunding from the Namibian government, its only shareholder, and has looked on helplessly as lorries drive off with much of its business.
By the middle of 2014, the locomotive situation had deteriorated to the point that the country's fuel security was under threat - the railway handles most of the country's bulk fuel requirements - and the government was finally goaded into action. A new board of directors was appointed and on September 25, they announced a 180-day turnaround plan. The key element of the plan was to refurbish the fleet of General Electric (GE) locomotives languishing at the main depot in Windhoek.
"Government gave us funds [for locomotive repair]," says Mr Johan Piek, a former investment banker who has been brought in from the private sector as the executive turnaround project manager. "We hoped to repair 12. Fortunately, we were able to stretch that to 21 locomotives."
Along with the 10 units from Transnet, a mix of GE U20C and GM-EMD GT26MC types, TransNamib will, with the help of Transnet Engineering's technical teams, refurbish another 11 U20C locomotives at the Windhoek workshops.
TransNamib chief executive Mr Hippy Tjivikua says the locomotive shortage is just one of the railway's biggest challenges. There is also a dearth of skills, and the track on much of the 2826km network is in poor shape.
"A major challenge is that the old railway network is not up to the Southern African Development Community standard of 18.5 tonnes per axle," he says. The current axleload is 16.5 tonnes on the main lines, the sole exception being 18.5 tonnes on the 305km extension from Tsumeb, and even lower on the lightly-laid branch from Windhoek to Gobabis, on the Namibia-Botswana border.
The railway also suffers from archaic systems. "Our systems are old, embedded in the 60s and 70s," Tjivikua says. "Computerisation, machinery in the wagon shops, they are 50 years old. We need to move away from that."
While TransNamib may have struggled to get its indifferent shareholder to take it seriously in the 25 years since Namibian independence, its problems really began long before that when the country, then called South West Africa, was ruled under mandate by South Africa following the carve-up of Germany's former colonial possessions after World War I.
For decades, the railway, which began operations in June 1902 as a 382km 610mm-gauge network built by German army engineers, had been run as a division of South African Railways. In the 1980s, the South African military, which was then embroiled in a prolonged independence war which had spilled over into Angola, Namibia's Russian-backed neighbour, had relied heavily on the line from Upington in South Africa to transport troops, artillery and armour to the vast garrison town of Grootfontein, northeast of Windhoek.
With the UN-brokered independence for the country inevitable by the late 1980s, the South Africans had reduced maintenance of the rail system to a bare minimum, and when the last South African railwaymen departed newly independent Namibia in 1990, they left behind a railway which had all the character of a lightly-trafficked rural branch line.
Under the terms of the independence agreement, they also left behind some 50 GE U20 and U20C1 locomotives which still form the backbone of TransNamib's fleet. Over the years, the number has been whittled away by accidents and spares shortages until recently when the operating department could count on the availability of barely a dozen locomotives each day.
In 2004, in an attempt to boost the fleet, TransNamib ordered four new diesel locomotives from China's CSR Ziyang, which was followed in 2007 with a follow-on order for 17 SDD6 locomotives. The move was disastrous, say observers. Some of the new locomotives were wrecked in derailments, others suffered catastrophic fires. Most of the rest, however, failed for lack of spare parts and 10 years on, the Chinese fleet stands out of use in forlorn rows at the motive power depot in Windhoek.
"For now the Chinese locos will not be repaired," Tjivikua says. "We are repairing only the GE fleet. It became a challenge to order Chinese spares."
The effects of the locomotive shortage are painfully apparent in TransNamib's traffic, down to 1.7 million tonnes per year from 2.1 million tonnes previously.
At current traffic levels, TransNamib requires at least 15 locomotives a day. However, in late January, the railway was running 15 trains a week, most of them on the key Walvis Bay - Tsumeb corridor. "Ideally, we would be running 27 trains a week," Tjivikua says.
The 10 newly-refurbished locomotives were earmarked for a service on the line from the country's main port at Walvis Bay to the north-eastern mining town of Tsumeb. Traffic on this section, which accounts for most of the railway's business, is mostly minerals, with copper from Tsumeb accounting for the lion's share, supplemented by container traffic to Oshikango, the current terminus of a recently-constructed extension from Tsumeb. The new line has also generated its own local traffic, mainly cement and gravel for road-building projects in the populated north.
The railway's bread-and-butter, however, is bulk fuel. There are no fuel pipelines in Namibia and the task of transporting the nation's fuel supplies from the coast to the scattered towns has fallen largely on TransNamib's shoulders. "It's our anchor product," says Tjivikua.
Meanwhile, aside from a daily mixed goods train with two passenger coaches coupled on the back running each way between Windhoek and Keetmanshoop, the southern line which connects to the South African rail network at Ariamsvlei, sees barely any traffic since the closure of Africem's cement depot in Windhoek.
A pair of overnight freight trains, each with two passenger coaches, also operates daily between Windhoek and Walvis Bay. TransNamib's passenger business is tiny but the services are operated as part of its social obligation. The company also owns the luxury Desert Express tourist train.
There is also a branch line from Keetmanshoop to Lüderitz, the country's second port, which has been closed for rebuilding for some years. The problem with the branch, aside from a critical shortage of revenue-earning traffic, is sand which blows in from the Namib Desert and covers the line. "Moving sands create serious havoc for operations," Tjivikua says. "It's hard labour to move [it] and very expensive."
Local private contractor D&M Rail was given the task of rebuilding the line, using tubular track which TransNamib hopes will reduce the sand problem.
Reconstruction is now complete and the first trains were due to run during 2015 but the traffic shortage is likely to remain a sticking point. Lüderitz harbour currently has no bulk loading facilities, although TransNamib officials say certain unspecified upgrades are on the cards.
Tjivikua hopes that new facilities mooted for the port, along with better equipment on the railway, could attract manganese traffic from mines in South Africa's Northern Cape province. "If we get the right rolling stock, we could capture that traffic," he says.
A look at a map of the TransNamib network, which connects every major town in the country, reveals the railway's potential. However, TransNamib's management style needed an overhaul if the railway was to succeed. That job fell on Piek who joined the railway last September.
"Anyone looking at a railway company can quickly see what's going wrong," he says, adding that in an organisation steeped in a bureaucratic approach to decision-making, changing managers' mindsets was one of the biggest challenges. "Decisions were made after extensive, exhaustive discussions and often not implemented. Nobody was prepared to take the risk. When I got here, cash flow management was [a problem]. You couldn't buy a $N 100 pressure pipe."
The next task was to focus on the railway's strengths. "The key for TransNamib will be bulk rail, specifically cement, "big" freight and containers," he says. "All the others ... we can't compete. My recommendation to the board was that we spin-off those businesses so that the core focuses on heavy rail."
News of the proposed spin-off, along with the implications for the railway's workforce, caused a ruckus and the media attacked TransNamib for threatening people's livelihoods, with the matter still pending as IRJ went to press.
In the short term, the railway needs to fix its track and do away with the slow orders that hamper its scheduling. Of course this will depend on the government, which owns the track, opening its purse. TransNamib says it needs $N 9bn for track upgrades, plus another $N 3bn for rolling stock.
Down the road, Tjivikua hopes that the mooted Trans Kalahari Railway, which would link Botswana's vast coal deposits with Walvis Bay, will become a reality. Indeed a heavy haul line would dramatically alter the landscape for TransNamib, adding weight to its plans for further developments.
"We also need to think about extending the railway from Grootfontein to Katima Mulilo (at the eastern end of the Caprivi Strip) to connect with Zambia and Zimbabwe," Tjivikua says. "That's a very important artery, it would provide an alternative route from the Copper Belt in Zambia, Katanga province in the Democratic Republic of Congo and northern Zimbabwe. But it's just an idea at the moment."