TAZARA’s “slow train” still holds potential

Tanzania once again stressed the importance of revitalising the Tanzania-Zambia Railway line (TAZARA). The railway has seen better days, with a slow but steady decline. In the 2014/2015 financial year, TAZARA recorded only 87,860 metric tons of freight transported; the lowest recorded figure since its inception in 1976.

The 1,860 km journey, stretches from Kapiri Mposhi (210 km from Lusaka) in central Zambia to Dar es Salaam. Built between 1970 and 1975, the railway remains a symbol of Sino-Africa relationship. At the time of its completion, TAZARA was the single longest railway in Sub-Saharan Africa; and at the cost of $500 million, it was the largest single foreign-aid project undertaken by China.

With Lusophone Southern African (Angola and Mozambique) heading towards a bloody conflict with their Portuguese overlords; and South Africa and Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) still in the hands of hostile white governments, the railway became a vital outlet for Zambia’s copper.

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Source: uyolecte.tumblr.com

While living in Tanzania, the 50 hour plus “slow train” was for the more adventurous, with ample time on their hands. The train could stop for hours or sometimes days, with little or no explanation. TAZARA suffered from years of mismanagement and underinvestment.  With the end of Apartheid in South Africa, the Zambian Copperbelt exporters increasingly opted for the more predictable week-long journey to the efficient Port of Durban; and away from the congestion in Dar es Salaam.

However TAZARA still holds potential, and can play an important role in the proposed COMESA-EAC-SADC Tripartite Free Trade Area.  In 2015, TAZARA received delivery of four Chinese supplied diesel-electric locomotives and 18 coaches. There have also been hints of a 40 km rail link to the planned Port of Bagamoyo (Tanzania) and the Special Economic Zone (SEZ).