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Tazara: The freedom rail that is collapsing

Tazara. Its construction was between 1970 and 1975, and its inauguration was in 1976. [Credit: Boston Review]

Half a century ago, the Tanzania-Zambia Railway (Tazara) stood out as a crucial symbol of Africa’s struggle for independence. The 1,860km-long railway connects Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia with Dar es Salaam at the Indian Ocean.

Tazara’s construction between 1970 and 1975, and inauguration in 1976, were steeped in anti-imperialist narratives that emphasised Sino-African solidarity.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Tazara transported a significant share of copper and mining inputs for Zambia’s state-owned mines. The railway increased the mobility of the rural population in both countries.

The railway recorded its peak performance in 1977/78, when it transported 1.27 million tonnes of cargo. But it never came close to its design capacity of 2.5 million tonnes per year. From the late 1980s onwards, liberalisation of the transport sector and the privatisation of Zambia’s mines resulted in fierce competition from road transporters.

The eventual demise of white minority regimes in the region further diminished Tazara’s geopolitical significance. Despite longer distances, a higher proportion of Zambia’s trade started to move along the southern corridors via South Africa’s efficient ports.

 Signs of renewal

In recent years, political will to refurbish the Freedom Railway - not least to reduce the expensive wear and tear on roads - has grown. However, tight public finances have prevented a major recapitalisation.

In August 2022, Zambia’s President Hakainde Hichilema made his first visit as head of state to Tanzania. After meetings with his counterpart Samia Suluhu Hassan, they announced that the two governments had agreed to rehabilitate Tazara.

An upgrade to standard gauge would enable the Uhuru railway to interlink with Tanzania’s new standard gauge railway. The standard gauge tracks have meanwhile reached the Dodoma region.

Contracts for extensions to Tabora (about 740km to the north-west of Dar es Salaam) and Mwanza (about 350km further north) have already been awarded. An inter-governmental agreement between Rwanda and Tanzania to build a line from Isaka (on the Tabora-Mwanza route) to Kigali was signed in 2018. Further connections to Burundi, the DRC and Uganda are planned.

But upgrading Tazara to standard gauge would be expensive and hence less attractive for a private investor. It would also pose connectivity challenges in Zambia. Zambia’s national network still operates on Cape gauge, as do South Africa’s and Zimbabwe’s.

Since its inauguration, Tazara’s impact has gone beyond the immediate goal to remedy Zambia’s transport emergency.

The railway transformed the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Tanzanians and Zambians who lived - or decided to settle - along its route.

Economically however, Tazara’s glorious days have long passed. In the 2014/2015 financial year Tazara conveyed only 87,860 metric tonnes of cargo.

According to its own estimates, it needs to transport at least 600,000 tonnes a year to cover its costs.

The situation has improved slightly since then, as a new management team brought down travel times and attracted new clients. Tazara’s governing bodies also decided to allow private operators to use its tracks.

Yet, the challenges for the company remain huge. The biggest one is the outdated, in some cases inoperative, infrastructure.

Dilapidated tracks, bridges and buildings, a dysfunctional signalling system and insufficient rolling stock prevent Tazara from meeting market demands.

The Tazara Authority is also grappling with crippling debts. In 2016, the shareholding governments - under the rigid control of the late President John Magufuli - rejected a 30-year concession proposed by a Chinese consortium.

New momentum

Under Hichilema and Hassan there seems to be new momentum for the privatisation of the Freedom Railway. This is for several reasons.

Hichilema has long been considered a free marketeer. Hassan, for her part, has markedly departed from Magufuli’s confrontational approach to foreign investors. She has openly called for more.

In addition, there is the factor of mounting fiscal pressure felt in Lusaka and, in recent years, also in Dodoma.

Under Zambia’s recently agreed International Monetary Fund rescue package all state expenses will be put to  scrutiny. Tanzania’s sovereign debt has increased since Covid-19 pandemic.

The World Bank adjusted its assessment of the country’s risk of debt distress from low to moderate early this year.