Tackling Africa’s rail infrastructure deficit

A well-functioning railway is widely recognized to be a driver of economic growth as it allows people to travel more widely for work and move goods between suppliers, manufacturers and customers reliably and efficiently. Additionally, in this era of increasing focus on environmental and climate issues, railways provide an impactful solution as a low carbon system of transport infrastructure as the least environmentally damaging way of moving large volumes of goods over long distances.

In cities, rail is unrivalled in its ability to transport large volumes of passengers and reduce congestion, while also being safer than road transport and significantly less damaging to air quality. Freight rail is an environmentally friendly alternative to long-distance inland road freight transport and high-speed rail is a low-carbon alternative to aviation for intra-continental trips.

Rail is one of the most energy-efficient transport modes, responsible for 9% of global motorized passenger movement and 7% of freight but only 3% of transport energy use1. But Africa’s railways are operating from a low base compared to global standards. It is estimated that Africa has only 75,000 kilometers of rail – which is less than China has on its highspeed railway – while the US has over 250,000 kilometers of rail2. When you consider that Africa is over three times the area of the US (at 30.37 million km2 and 9.15 million km2 respectively) but has less than a third of the rail network, it portrays the scale of Africa’s rail deficit.

It goes beyond just expanding Africa’s rail network, there is also the need to rehabilitate and modernize many of the existing legacy assets. Track components are aged; there are a lack of spare parts and a shortage of rolling stock, equipment and maintenance vehicles; signaling and telecom systems require replacing; there are inadequate maintenance/renovation programs; and rail infrastructure lacks uniformity. All these factors have safety and efficiency implications, while the network deficit and lack of capacity further impedes railways’ ability to fully compete with road haulage.

Cross-border trade freight via rail in some African countries is also handicapped by lack of connectivity and interoperability, while some railways consist of single track non-electrified networks, thus necessitating the use of diesel locomotives. Many of the rail networks are still operating to the standard at which they were built in the colonial era.

Interoperability is also constrained by the use of differing gauges in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Most use either Cape gauge or meter gauge, but there are also several standard gauge lines. For example, the metric gauge is the commonly operated gauge in the WAEMU region, making large axial loads on wagons and trains inoperable.

Most railways in SSA carry significantly more freight than passengers, with freight averaging over 90 percent of total traffic units and being dominated by bulk and semi-bulk commodities, principally to and from ports 3. To fully compete with road and air transport alternatives, rail needs to have reliable, low-cost service providers on key transport arteries and to interact seamlessly with road carriers for last mile delivery to the customer.

At Thelo DB we’re addressing these issues as an African railway entity incorporated between Thelo Group and Germany’s Deutsche Bahn E&C (DB), which is one of the largest, fully integrated railway companies in the world, providing customized and sustainable transport solutions using its global experience and capacity to Africa’s railway market, supporting the development of new railway corridors and enhancing the operational efficiencies of existing networks. We have the skills, capacity, experience and expertise to develop, implement and support complex freight and/or passenger railway projects of any scale in Africa. This includes 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.

Our sister company, Thelo Rolling Stock, is the pre-eminent financier of rolling stock – locomotives, freight wagons, fuel tankers and passenger cars – for rail operators, concession holders and freight owners in Africa, providing customers with effective, reliable, high-quality equipment. It sources its equipment from local and international manufacturers and its partnerships include Transnet Engineering, General Electric / Wabtec, Grindrod and National Railway Equipment. It also ensures that its partners establish workshops, supply chains and training for maintenance in the countries where the rolling stock is deployed, thus transferring skills, as well as creating and preserving jobs for Africans.


1 Tracking Rail 2020 – Analysis – IEA
2 A look at the future of railway technology in Africa – ASME
3 World Bank Document