Tazara buggered but can be fixed

This is the first part of an opinion by Greg Mills examining the state of the Tanzania-Zambia Railway Line, one of the several infrastructure projects touted as potential drivers of integration in the SADC region  

Tazara railway can be turned around, though it will require dollops of political will to do so. At first, it will necessitate a recognition that its current state is not ‘fixed’, even though it suits several key actors to keep it down and out. Turning the political economy of protecting privilege, plunder and survival into one of prosperity will lie at the heart of the railway’s transformation, as with any infrastructure in Africa.

‘Sklikktery klak… screeee… sklikkerty klak’ shaked, rattled and rolled the Tazara railway for 50 hours on the journey between Kapiri Mposhi in central Zambia to Dar es Salaam, 1,860kms away on the Indian Ocean. The brainchild of presidents Kenneth Kaunda and Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, a shared centrepiece of African solidarity, development and anti-colonialism, Tazara is today operational with four scheduled passenger services and infrequent freight trains, but only just. Last year Tazara carried less than 200,000 tonnes of freight, a long way from the five million tonne capacity installed by the Chinese in October 1975.

Just outside the railway station, Dar’s Tazara junction along Nyerere and Mandela roads is a metaphor for the chaos that surrounds the operation of the railway itself. Amid a swirl of dust, cars and motorbikes attempt to make a third, sometimes fourth, unpaved lane to avoid the clog of container-bearing trucks and other vehicles.

In the case of the junction, local demand plus an absence of implementation of planned projects (specifically, a flyover) has created the chaos. With the railway, a combination of government inefficiencies and vested interests has forced users to travel by road. Things usually work for a reason. As it turns out, Tazara doesn’t work very well for equally good reasons.

The statue outside the railway station at Kapiri Mposhi, 200kms to Lusaka’s north, tells a story about the railway’s hopes, blood, sweat and tears, and failure. A giant spade remembers the labour and sacrifice of the 50,000 Chinese and 60,000 Africans who built the 320 bridges, 22 tunnels and 2,225 culverts which dot the route, incorporating not less than a third of a million tonnes of steel rail alone, all shipped from China. More than 160 workers, including 64 Chinese, died in accidents along the way. Taming the terrain involved a feat of engineering, hardship and bravery second to none.

The passenger coaches are old and worn, the facilities a vigorous assault on the senses, the continuous fight to stay upright made more grim by the wafts from the ablutions, the location advertised by a trail of wet footprints. “You should see Third Class,” says the senior conductor, “they don’t have even have the water-bucket.” The train clatters its way slowly down from the harsh, dry and brown highlands across the green coastal plain towards Dar, dotted with banana and palm trees and rich grasses, passing 93 stations along the way, linking otherwise cut-off, exceptionally poor rural communities.

At Kapwila for example, two hours from the border with Tanzania, locals throng around the train hawking everything from water to, I think, beef. The scenes are sometimes pitiful. I watched one small girl unsuccessfully trying to sell the water she had decanted into old Fanta bottles. It is hard to imagine a happy ending for these ‘Railway Children’.

Inside the train more complex trade is going on. One of the conductors explains that, while she has not been paid her US$90 salary for five months, the privilege of her position allows her to trade, for example picking up rice in Dar for 300 Kwacha a bag and sell it at Kapiri for Kw400. Others are doing much the same with second hand clothes, known in Bemba as ‘Salaula’ (to ‘pick’ or ‘rummage’), bananas and sweet potatoes, integrating the Central and East African regions in spite of government. I was tempted by the faux US$7 leather jacket, less Indiana Jones than Ferris Bueller, but common sense prevailed.

The means of survival, or political economy of operations, are not always immediately clear cut and visible. The same is true for the railroad itself.

At the time, Tazara was the largest China aid project in Africa, at least US$500 million in 1970s prices. On the wall of the New Kapiri Mposhi Station is a plaque declaring ‘This foundation stone was laid by Mwalimu Julius K Nyerere, the First President of the United Republic of Tanzania to inaugurate the construction of the Tanzania-Zambia Railway Project on 28th October, 1970’.

Nyerere had gone to the Chinese for support given the US, among others, had declared the railway as without commercial sense. The motive was the need to find another outlet for Zambia’s copper than through white-ruled Angola, Mozambique, Rhodesia or South Africa. Add a large dollop of Pan-Africanism and Nyerere’s Uhurusim, not to mention a pinch of anti-Western salting, and Tazara was a done deal.

Despite the overturned waggons and broken rolling stock littering the lines as well as the declared 48 decayed sections where a speed limit has been imposed and the coaches bounce and lean more than normal, the line is generally in good condition – unsurprising, since it is virtually brand new in railway use terms. In a few places the Chinese-inscribed concrete sleepers have been nicked, leaving the rail sidings sleeperless, for example, in Siginali.

The engraving might well say, ‘We came, we built, and we’re outta here’. The Chinese remain only half interested in keeping the railway dream alive, now into the 15th protocol of assistance. But they don’t seem to want to commit to fixing it, Beijing’s Africa policy no longer driven by misty-eyed sentiment and socialism as much as hard-eyed self-interest and commerce.

The policies of other donors have also not generally helped. Over the last 15 years, Western aid has focused on improving the roads, especially in land-locked Zambia. 

This pulled traffic off the railway onto the roads. While 60% of the traffic leaving the port of Dar went by rail down the central and Tazara lines combined 25 years ago, today this figure is just 0.7%.

This has not improved the maintenance of roads, to the contrary. “There is no word in any Zambian language,” says one former MP, “for maintenance, and it shows.” Instead aid flows have gone hand-in-hand with gouging on road contracts to fund political campaigns. 

And when donors have tightened up on governance, the money has gone unspent; for example, half of the most recent European allocation of road funding in Zambia of €140 million was returned to Brussels. Development, donors are to be frequently reminded, is primarily a political and not a technical exercise.

Now in one of their periodic ‘paradigm shifts’ the donors are going back to spending more on governance projects, and not always with commensurate clarity. ‘Strengthening the co-ordination and management of the engendered and rights based multi-sectoral and decentralised response to HIV and Aids’ read the door slogan on the white Land Cruiser in the parking lot of the Lusaka Club. Whoever dreamt that up should be neutered, not engendered.

Today Tazara carries less than 4% of its designed freight capacity. The cost of moving things by road, via Tanzania, Mozambique, Namibia or South Africa, should be much more given the relative load efficiencies of rail. But it’s not. 

Both are around US$145 per tonne. And whereas a truck from the Copperbelt to Durban will take around a week, the train to Dar has been known to take as long as two months. 

As one of the larger copper producers in Zambia reminds, every day a tonne of copper waits, it costs the company US$0.60c.

Back in the 1970s there was a political push to make the railway happen, even though the commercial logic was suspect. Now there is a commercial logic, but the politics are weak, guided less by an ethos of ‘we’ than ‘me’. – Daily Maverick

June 2015
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