Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Train Spotting

Africa's transportation capacity is currently beholden to road transport: According to the U.N., 80 percent of goods and 90 percent of people are moved via motorized vehicles—leaving many of Africa's sprawling urban hubs stuck in bumper-to-bumper gridlock. And as Africa's cities continue to grow, investing in alternative modes of transportation will only become more crucial.

The rehabilitation of old colonial-era railways is gaining steam across Africa. Over 220 miles of the Uganda-Kenya railway, which broke ground in 1896, will be revitalized by 2017. Ethiopia, meanwhile, is expected to reopen its 450 mile colonial-era rail line in early 2016. Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, is also getting into the mix. The West African nation invested $166 million to get old trains back up and running between Lagos, a megacity of over 20 million people, and Kano, an ancient city 700 miles to the north. A modern light rail network will open in the capital city of Addis Ababa in February. Once completed, this system will connect to a rehabilitated countrywide rail service. For the first time in history, the Ethiopian capital and various secondary cities will all be connected by rail. Migrants, freight services, and prospective businesses will gain access to a web of cities under a more integrated rail service. Africa's traditional urban centers—like Nairobi, and Accra—are unlikely to be the big winners of an expanded rail network. Instead, it's Africa's secondary cities—with populations ranging from 500,000 to 5 million—often neglected and overlooked by developers, that stand to gain the most. Offering secondary cities more equitable rail transportation is vital because their populations are exploding. 70 percent of Africa's urban growth through 2050 is projected for secondary cities—growth that must be buffeted by a national rail service.

For decades mismanagement and decay rendered the railways to rust and overgrow with plant life. A 2011 report co-authored by the World Bank and the African Development Bank found that $3 billion was needed to modernize Africa's railways; the latest revitalization efforts represent a mere fraction of that need. Nonetheless, the projects symbolize a major shift in the continent's transportation infrastructure and planning. Rather than creating an interconnected network of cities, as modern railways often do, colonial rails simply connected resource-rich hinterlands to the coastline. The final destination along the port is where goods (and people) were ultimately shipped off to Europe and beyond. Not surprisingly, this is where Africa's major urban centers grew. African countries generally boast a single major city, which is almost exclusively located along the final destination of its colonial railway network. Africa's mid-size cities away from the coast, meanwhile, essentially developed in isolation—from the rail infrastructure and the commercial benefits that came with it. A 2014 working paper from Oxford University found that cities in Kenya that developed near rail networks were not only denser but also wealthier. So by refurbishing and ultimately expanding aging rail networks, Africa's once closed-off secondary cities could finally become integrated into nationwide rail networks and reap the accompanying rewards.


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