Angolans face tremendous challenges as they work to restore their country’s export capacity and war-devastated infrastructure, but that daunting task has an upside in that it opens the way for the creation of a reliable network of intermodal transport nodes that will do more than just facilitate the movement of people and goods
Taking its name from the first of the provinces on its route through the Angolan heartland, the Benguela rail line remained in service from 1929 until the outbreak of civil war in the 1970s, acting as a lifeline between Angola’s coastal and inland population centres while carrying out its primary task of hauling ore. Year after year, the railroad made hefty profits by sparing those landlocked countries’ lucrative exports an 8,000km (4,970-mile) detour to the seaports of South Africa.
Then and now, the line extends from the Atlantic port of Lobito, in Benguela province, to Luau on the Congolese border. From there it runs deep into the “Katanga copperbelt” of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and northern Zambia. The 1,344km line that owes its existence to visionary engineer Sir Robert Williams also passes through Huambo, Bie and Moxico provinces, making up to 67 stops along the way.
Building Africa’s second-longest railroad took more than a quarter century, but all that human effort and ingenuity was erased from the map by a civil war that also put over half of Angola’s roadways out of commission, or left them to crumble from neglect. More than 450 critical road and rail bridges proved all too easy targets during the bitter struggle.
Under those conditions, ordinary road haulage was dangerous, difficult and prohibitively expensive while the war raged on, and it stayed that way during the period that immediately followed. After oil money started coming in, however, the government went all out rebuilding and reactivating critical infrastructure, starting with its rail sector and changing whatever was necessary so that it could contribute to Angola’s hopes of becoming an economic powerhouse at regional and global levels.
In February, Angolan President José Eduardo Dos Santos inaugurated a newly rebuilt station at Luau, the Benguela line’s eastern terminus, in the presence of Zambian President Edgar Chagwa Lungu and his DR Congo counterpart, Joseph Kabila. At that ceremony, Angolan Transport Minister Augusto da Silva Tomás confirmed that since 2005, the government has invested €3.5 billion (£2.6 billion) in the rehabilitation of Angola’s railways and earmarks 14 per cent of its annual budget for the transport sector as a whole.
“It took that much time and money to recover just three railroads, all of which run east to west,” says Dr Celso Rodrigues de Lemos Rosa, Chairman of the Luanda Railroad Company, or CFL, which covers the 424km separating the Angolan capital from the city of Malenje and hauls offloaded containers to the dryport at the Luanda suburb of Viana.
The next item in the government’s sights is to hook up its back-in-service Luanda, Benguela and Moçâmedes lines with railways in adjacent countries. But Dr Rosa notes, “Our longer-term strategy involves linking the big three to north-south development corridors planned for the future so as to create a grid that is accessible from practically anywhere in the country.”
Transport Minister Mr da Silva Tomás has made no secret of the fact that eventually he hopes to see “a network of more than 10,000km long created over the next 10 to 15 years that will become the fundamental element of our territorial and economic cohesion.”
According to Dr Rosa, “At some point after the railroads are fully functional and generating revenue, the government would like to see the private sector take over their day-to-day operational and commercial activities.” That would create opportunities for foreign investors in a country that still has a lot of catching up to do.
“Developing those projects is going to require a great deal of money and know-how, and I expect many of them will turn out to be suited for public-private partnerships. The government is aware that it cannot do it all on its own. But we believe that good people, private entities especially, will mobilise to help Angola develop because of the opportunities it offers,” Dr Rosa indicates.
The airport at Catumbela, some 13km down the coast from Lobito, is the government’s choice for the air transport component in its integrated logistics scheme, but the facility is still awaiting construction of a dedicated freight terminal. Actually, Catumbela handles a fair amount of domestic traffic while international certification remains pending. That is not because it has experienced problems but because the airport has not been in operation long enough to accumulate enough statistically significant data since it opened in 2012. A twin-track rail spur connects the airport to Lobito and its port, allowing seamless transfers of cargo. Furthermore, Catumbela is one of only 31 of Angola’s 195 airports that can boast of a paved runway.
A new international airport is coming to Luau, the eastern terminus of the Benguela railway, and Luanda airport is set for a $72 million (£48 million) enlargement and remodelling project. The government has also pledged to create at least one decent-sized modern airport in each of the country’s 18 provinces.
With the Benguela corridor operational as of August 2014, authorities are refocusing their infrastructure agenda. For starters, it plans to transform the 600km-long coastal road that connects Lobito and Luanda into a four-lane highway with a roadbed that can resist the punishment inflicted on it by 100-tonne lorries. At the same time, a new bridge over the Cuanza River, 30km south of Luanda, will allow drivers to access the renovated EN-100 from the outskirts of the Angolan capital.
Meanwhile, the government’s $1.25 billion investment in maritime infrastructure has materialised on the docks of Lobito, where a new state-funded dryport, a container terminal and terminals for bulk ore and petroleum have reconfigured the functional character of Angola’s second-largest seaport.
A seven-kilometre long branch line connects the port complex with the Benguela rail terminal in Lobito, where dedicated passenger halls and boarding platforms can accommodate up to six trains at a time, and passengers wait to board for destinations along the African continent’s second-largest rail line.
Jesus Nelson Martins, Director General of the Lobito Corridor Authority, is tasked with seeing that the Benguela line eventually achieves its target of moving 20 million tonnes of cargo and 4 million passengers per year. But the train, considered a medium for transporting goods and people, is not the only matter that concerns him. “You have to bear in mind that the Lobito Corridor existed for many years before Angola became independent,” he says. “But back then it was totally about transport. Investors saw potential in the mines of Katanga (in the present-day DR Congo) and decided that going through Lobito was the shortest and least costly way of getting that ore out of the country. For most of its existence, the Benguela railroad line has been almost exclusively a carrier of minerals from the DR Congo” Things have changed now.
“These days we are thinking more in terms of a development corridor,” says Mr Martins. “Transport is a significant component, but by no means the only one. The overarching aim is to integrate infrastructure and speed up the development of the Angolan hinterland, as well as in surrounding countries and beyond.”
Eventually, however, the future economic potential of the Lobito Corridor may have little to do with transport, social cohesion or even Zambian copper. That was the implicit message in a recent study by agronomists who determined that the buffer zone abutting the train tracks along much of its 1344km route consists of somewhere between 12 and 20 million hectares of highly arable land, ample water sources, and vast, abandoned eucalyptus plantations. All that fertile soil was left uncultivated when the railway was repeatedly blown up by one or another faction during the civil war and the people that had been working the land sought refuge from the fighting in the cities.
If the decision is made to develop that land on the large-scale agro-industrial model, the produce it yields only needs to be loaded onto passing trains to be whisked to Lobito and from there to other markets in African countries, including Angola’s partners in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Economic Community of Central African States (CEEAC).
“Investments in intermodal transport strategy are essential to unlocking the full potential of the vast natural resources of the country and of the wider region,” says Mr da Silva Tomás. By way of example, he points out that Zambia would be able to import oil and other items directly from Angola while developing an agricultural sector that could go through the port of Lobito to get its exports to market.
It is impressive to think that following decades of civil conflict, Angolans did not just rebuild but decided to take that destruction as an invitation to exploit the country’s privileged location and reinvent itself as a regional hub. The investment it has made in intermodal innovation is ample proof that Angola is preparing for a different kind of future and is not prepared to settle for less.