High-speed rail has made significant inroads across the continent. A 300 km line between Tangier and Casablanca was inaugurated in Morocco in November 2018 and the journey now takes two hours instead of six, with only a moderate increase in ticket price. Since 2016, the 200 km journey from Abuja to Kaduna in Northern Nigeria can be completed in one hour. Other routes are now being planned for example between Kaduna and Kano or Kano and Lagos. While economic gains are expected, social and political impact will also be visible. Via these infrastructure developments, inequalities between northern regions that have historically been perceived as neglected and oil-rich southern areas will be reduced.
The Gautrain, which was launched in 2010 between Johannesburg International Airport and Pretoria is another example of dynamism in that sector. This high-speed line, which raised some controversy at its announcement now carries 100 000 passengers a day. It has strongly reduced daily traffic jams in Gauteng province, the industrial heart of South Africa.
Africa’s economic integration depends first and foremost on its transport infrastructure, which is still influenced by the planning policies of the colonial era. There are too few highways between countries and too few trains, out of Africa’s 90,000 km of rail network, to cross borders. The network linking Uganda to Tanzania, Ethiopia to Djibouti or South Africa to Zimbabwe remains the exception rather than the rule. Entering the 21st century, railway use remains focused on the transport of goods and raw materials between the coast and the hinterland as was the case decades ago. This situation must change, so that Africa can finally trade internally on a larger scale.
The African Integrated High Speed Railway Network (AIHSRN), one of the flagship projects of the African Union’s Agenda 2063, is one step in the right direction. The modernisation and extension of rail networks will not be possible without the use of technologies, a key element of modern “intelligent” transport. Africa has already demonstrated a spectacular ability to “leapfrog” in the digital sector as proven by the number of mobile phone users and mobile banking customers. It could be the same in railways, where the continent would directly move on to the use of advanced technologies in transportation.
This week’s first African Digital Rail Summit in Cape Town, organized by NEPAD and the International Union of Railways (IUC), identified major projects, suggested a few steps for a way forward and revitalized the dynamic in the African Union of Railways (UAC).