Many businesses and governments in Africa long relied on aging railroads and port facilities to ship valuable cargo such as coal and precious metals for export. Their early, narrow-gauge railways could handle only steam-powered trains traveling at up to 40 kilometers per hour or so, and their loads were limited.
Today, Africa's growing needs, spurred by industry and passengers, have attracted many railway builders and operators from across the world. They seek to build modern railroads to meet African economies' soaring demand for foreign trade, regional connectivity, investment opportunities and a more functional service sector.
One of these global companies is China Railway 20th Bureau Group Corp, an infrastructure project provider known as CR20G. The subsidiary of State-owned China Railway Construction Corp completed the Moxico Oil and Gas Railway Transport Special Railway Line in eastern Angola in mid-October.
Based in Luena, Moxico province, the railway was designed and built based on Chinese standards to ensure safe transportation of oil and natural gas. Sonangol EP, Angola's State-owned oil company, was involved in the railway's planning and construction and it will be managed by the nation's Benguela Railway Co.
"After the Moxico oil and gas railway line is put into operation, it will greatly improve the efficient transportation of Angolan fuel and natural gas into inland regions," said Zhu Qihui, chairman of CR20G's subsidiary in Angola.
Zhu said the line will not only help solve the problem of tight fuel supplies in inland areas, but also cut costs and safety risks in the transportation and storage of the two fuels. Residents of the three provinces of Moxico, Lunda Sul and Lunda Norte will be the first to benefit from lower-cost fuel.
Zhu said that after working in Angola for more than a decade, he sees the country's growth potential as fairly high. CR20G projects are located in different provinces of Angola and include railways, airports, highways, municipalities, urban water supply, stadiums and other areas.
The company, based in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, completed and handed over the Benguela Railway to Angola in 2019.
The 1,344-km railway runs through Angola, from west of the Atlantic port city of Lobito, eastward through key cities such as Benguela, Huambo, Kuito and Luena before reaching the border city of Luao, bordering the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The Benguela railway not only connects Angola with the DRC, but also is expected to reach Zambia through the DRC, further reducing export costs for copper and other resources for these countries. The Benguela Railway and the Tanzania-Zambia Railway form a major international corridor between the Atlantic and Indian oceans in eastern, central and southern Africa.
Since entering Angola in 2004, the Chinese firm has hired a total of nearly 100,000 local residents to participate in railway construction, Zhu said. Among them, more than 10,000 local workers have acquired skills through practical training and mentorship, and many of them have found vocations such as being welders, mechanics or communications and electrical power workers.
In addition to freight trains, light urban train systems are needed in African countries because congestion remains a serious issue, according to Feng Hao, a researcher at the National Development and Reform Commission's Institute of Comprehensive Transportation in Beijing. High-speed trains, however, are too ambitious for most sub-Saharan countries, he said.
Africa's population is generally concentrated in big cities, and other places are sparsely populated. A high-speed train would not carry enough passengers to justify the cost, given that 1 kilometer of high-speed track can cost as much as $50 million, Feng said.
"Relatively developed countries such as South Africa and Nigeria might be able to build them, but it is still far off for other countries," he added.