How railways can drive Africa’s economic development

The transport sector is a vital facilitator in the acceleration of trade across Africa. For land-based transport – railways are ideal for mass transit in and around urban areas and for transporting freight over long distances. It has significant advantages over road and aviation for many factors including safety, energy efficiency, lower emissions, reduced congestion and lower costs of delivery per kilometer. It does, however, need efficient partnerships with road freight for last mile delivery.

Outdated rail network
As is well documented, Africa’s rail infrastructure, network and rolling stock requires massive investment to bring it up to world standards and to fulfil its potential. It needs massive extension of its network, connectivity and capacity, modernization, rehabilitation, improved maintenance, modern communications, better supply and stocks of spare parts and more rolling stock, maintenance vehicles and equipment. Further, interoperability is impeded both by the differing gauges in use and the incidence of many single track non-electrified networks, with the latter requiring diesel locomotives.

AfCFTA incentivisation
With the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) progressively removing tariffs and addressing non-tariff trade barriers, the UN Economic Commission for Africa predicts that it will increase intra-African trade by about 40%1. Unsurprisingly, this would also significantly increase traffic flows and transport equipment needs across road, rail, shipping and aviation.

Catching up to what is needed is a tall order, but so too is a change in mindset. Africa’s population – and therefore consumer demand – is rapidly growing, while the gathering momentum of urbanization continues to accelerate, as does the demand for industrial parks, special economic zones and ports. These structural changes need to be accompanied by an ecosystem development approach. It shouldn’t just be about building the new industrial park, factory or whatever. To realize maximum potential, they also need the social and economic infrastructure – the residential housing, shops, schools, doctors, power, telecoms, ICT, water supply and sanitation, roads, rail and more.

Identifying the rail projects and requirements

ALG, a global consultancy focused on transportation, infrastructure and logistics, deems2 the areas in Africa most appropriate to railway projects to be:

  • Major African metropolises – urban and suburban passenger railways;
  • Densely populated areas and corridors – high volumes for freight or passengers possible;
  • Corridors from ports to inland markets – freight trains moving containerized or bulk materials from/to ports over long distances; and
  • Major mining basins – freight trains moving minerals and other raw materials to export ports.

A 2020 report3 by the World Bank stated that railways need to be ‘reliable, low-cost service providers on key transport arteries and interact seamlessly with road carriers to deliver door-to-door service to the customer … critical hubs must be developed to consolidate freight. They need to be located to be convenient for the customers (not just the railway) and the overall transport service needs to be tailored to the particular requirements of individual customers or groups of customers. Many railways in sub-Saharan Africa are locating container hubs in inland cities. The railway typically moves the containers between the hub and a port, and the hub may also be a dry port offering customers clearance services.’

Further, the World Bank report forecast that the renaissance and transformation of sub-Saharan Africa’s railways requires the implementation of three elements – good governance, adequate funding and building traffic – to enable them to contribute to economic growth in a climate-friendly way and to enhance transport to improve lives.

Indeed, for Africa’s 17 landlocked countries, their economic development is especially reliant upon efficient freight transport corridors with sufficient capacity to link them to maritime ports and other countries.

Gaining market share from road freight
Currently the majority of on-land African freight transport is carried by road, emphasizing the potential for rail, especially for long distance deliveries. Over the 14-year period 2006 to 2019, annual African rail freight carried remained in the range of 131.08 to 156.97 billion tonne kilometers4.

To redress the balance and attract greater market share – when the rail network and capacity is in place – Africa’s railways need to compete on transport cost (including last mile), delivery time, service frequency and reliability. With sufficient investment the prize is there.

Thelo DB is ideally positioned to meet the challenges and provide the solutions to Africa’s railway network, infrastructure and operational needs. We have the skills, capacity, experience and expertise to develop, implement and support complex freight and/or passenger railway projects across Africa, from concept through to design and engineering, financing, procurement, testing and commissioning, operations and maintenance, as well as skills development. Our capabilities include urban passenger rail, regional and long-distance passenger rail, freight rail and all associated infrastructure, such as track and network, signaling and telecommunications, depots, stations and civil structures, energy and power. Additionally, our sister company, Thelo Rolling Stock can finance the rolling stock to provide customers with effective, reliable, high-quality equipment, as well as ensuring that workshops, supply chains and training for maintenance are available in the countries where the rolling stock is used.

Railways have high fixed costs, particularly in respect of infrastructure, but comparatively low variable costs, thus positioning them favorably for dense traffic flows. There is no doubt that Africa’s railways can play a major role in the facilitation of trade and economic development, but significant investments are needed, and the resultant capacity needs to be utilized. In the words of Lalu Prasad Yadav: “Wagon is the bread-earning horse of the Railways. Load it adequately. Make it run and don’t stable it.”

1 African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) to significantly increase traffic flows on all transport modes | United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (
2 Rail Infrastructure in Africa – Shaping Future (
3 World Bank Document
4 Rail freight traffic: Africa 2019 | Statista