The Benguela Railway in Angola ceased operating in the 1970s with the onset of the Angolan Civil War, and it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that talks began on resuming service. Officially completed on Feb. 14, 2015, the rebuilt railway is monumental for the region, hyped as ushering in a new period of cross-cultural and economic exchange in Central Africa. Here are 12 things you didn’t know about the Benguela Railway.
Sources: DailyMail.co.zm, Bloomberg.com, SouthernTimesAfrica.com, RailwayGazette.com, Out-Law.com, NatLawReview.com
The Benguela railway was originally built in 1902 along trade routes between the ancient trading center of Benguela and areas on the Bié plateau. With a brief interruption during World War I, the Benguela Railway served as an integral connection for Angolan exports, and was extremely profitable. The Angolan Civil War that broke out after the country’s independence in 1975 halted operations and damaged the bulk of the infrastructure of the railway.
The Benguela Railway stretches from Angola’s Atlantic port city of Lobito to the eastern town of Luau on the border with the DRC. From there, the railway connects to the southeastern railway networks of Southeastern DRC, and Zambia, and beyond.
Though Zambia does not connect directly into the Benguela, the new railway operation connecting through the DRC’s Katanga Province feeds into Zambia. From there, Zambia can connect to Beira, Mozambique; and Dar es Salaaam, Tanzania, as well to the rail systems of South Africa — particularly Durban, Africa’s busiest port — forming a transcontinental railroad.
Copper mine investors played a crucial role in helping to finance the railway project, and they stand to benefit immeasurably. With the Benguela operating, copper can now be exported from the DRC (specifically the Katanga Province) and Zambia through Lobito, connecting with passenger ships to Europe.
Lobito’s connection to Zambia, Africa’s largest copper producer, means it will soon compete with East Africa for copper exports. Zambia and the DRC together account for 7.4 percent of world production of copper, with a combined production of about 1.3 million metric tons per year. Copper is the largest export of both countries.
When in full operation, the Benguela Railway is expected to carry up to 20 million passengers and 2 million tons of goods each year. The tracks stretch for 1.032 kilometers. The rail company has eight locomotives, 66 passenger cars, and 94 cargo wagons with plans to acquire 40 more locomotives.
With the completion of the Benguela railway, Angola and Zambia have already signed agreements on railway and water transport to help increase and facilitate the movement of people and goods between the two nations. The water transport agreement focuses on the Shangombo-Rivungu canal, a 10-kilometer canal between Western Zambia and Southeastern Angola that is nearing completion as well. The canal is critical to opening up more rural areas of both Zambia and Angola.
As a part of the bilateral agreement, Zambia agreed to build a 590-kilometer railway from Chingola to Jimbe, located on the Angolan border, with an additional connection to the Benguela from there. Work is expected to begin on this project in June 2015.
Angolan, the DRC, and Zambian presidents dos Santos, Kabila, and Lungu flew to Luau on Feb. 14, 2015, to attend the opening ceremony of the Benguela Railway. The meeting represented the intentions of the three heads of state to work cooperatively to increase trade and cross-cultural exchange in the region.
Angolan residents now enjoy relative peace after over two decades of civil war, and it’s hoped that increased cooperation between central African neighbors will help resolve conflicts that still exist in the region, particularly in Eastern DRC. Zambian President Lungu said in his speech at the inaugural ceremony, “Zambia would like to reaffirm her support to your relentless efforts, particularly as we strive to reach a lasting solution to the situation in the Eastern DRC. Regional peace and stability remain vital to achieving meaningful and sustainable development for our people.”
While the international-exchange benefits of the Benguela Railway are immense, so too are the domestic possibilities it creates. The railway is the longest and fastest in Angola, with speeds up to 90-kilometers per hour and 67 stations along the route – many of which allow access to previously inaccessible rural areas.
The China Railway Construction Corp. has been rebuilding the Benguela Railway since 2007 as a part of an “infrastructure for oil” trade agreement. Essentially, China agreed to invest significant resources in rebuilding the Benguela. The final cost of reconstruction work was estimated at $1.83 billion in exchange for Angola’s commitment to become China’s main oil supplier. In 2010, Angola overtook Saudi Arabia as the bigger oil supplier to China, demonstrating the significance of its position as trading partner.