cameroon train accident pic Reuters

Cameroon deadly train accident a wake up call for Africa’s ageing infrastructure

The death toll from Cameroon’s recent deadly train accident has risen to 80, with over 600 injured, according to reports.

The overcrowded train – 1 300 passengers instead of 600 – left the capital Yaoundé smoothly but never reached its final destination of Douala, derailing off the tracks near the village of Eseka, Central Cameroon, some 120 km west of the capital.

The country is in a mourning mood, while victims’ families turn to rail transport operator CAMRAIL for answers, which they might probably never get.  Formerly controlled by the government, CAMRAIL was privatised in 1999, giving the operating rights to Bolloré (France) through its subsidiary COMAZAR.

Cameroon’s railways challenges

The country’s current rail situation looks like this, according to the National Railway Master Plan Study of Cameroon:

The country has a railways network of about 1 200 km, most of which is dilapidated and seriously needing investment.

The Central line, which connects Douala to Yaoundé, was initially constructed between Douala and Eseka, and the section connecting to Yaoundé was later added. A small number of coaches are allotted to each train, which runs three times a day.

Another section of track between Bassa Station (Douala) and Dibamba was dug by the Germans before 1911 and has a slope of 15%. The 262 km railway line that separates the cities of Douala and Yaoundé are made of welded rail track between them on the bars 14 meters long, laid on wooden crosses.

In rainy seasons, the rail tracks are flooded by rain, forcing trains to stop and wait until rainwater had subsided.  The second section on Douala -Yaoundé rail is placed in 36 kg for each meter on wooden cut forests in Cameroon and notched workshops tapping. The main difficulty is the rapid decay of those ties due to many weather-climate zone of the equatorial forest.

Another difficulty is the increasing scarcity of fuel wood, which is currently the most or almost used in all of the sleepers, comes from the forests of Congo.

The work of track maintenance is performed by three small companies without sufficient equipment under the supervision of CAMRAIL technicians.

President angry

President Paul Biya, one of Africa’s long serving dictators, is reportedly angry and has orderede an thorough investigation into the crash. But many observers believe Biya should not dare to look even behind his bedroom’s curtains because the causes of the accident are right there where he is standing.

The president thought that the country’s railway challenges would be over with the ceding of operating rights to CAMRAIL. He and his government, critics say, went to sleep tight and relax, thinking that CAMRAIL had all the solutions to all of the railway problem of Cameroon.

For 34 years, his government has failed to provide Cameroon with a modern, world class railway infrastructure to replace the old, ageing trains and rails, most of which date from the pre-colonial era.

Africa’s frequent train accidents

Train accidents occur on a regular basis in Africa, some are underreported while others make the headlines of international media.

If one travels across the continent, he/she should see that many trains running in and criss-crossing African cities and villages are nothing but moving coffins, which have been built with the technology of 1920 and 1940.

Right from the bottom of the continent, from South Africa up to Ethiopia and West Africa, the sight of ageing trains making deafening noises and leaving a trail of smoke and fuel-like odour is common.

AfDB’s alarming bells

The African Development Bank (AfDB) has acknowledged the problem in its Rail Infrastructure in Africa: Financing Policy Options 2015 report: “The current condition of existing railways infrastructure and rolling stock is poor in many African countries.

“This shortfall has undermined the potential of the rail systems to play a strong contributing role in economic development. In fact, rail transport market share in most countries on the continent is below 20% of the total volume of freight transport.

“Two of the major reasons, cited to account for this situation, are the lack of investment in infrastructure and the absence of a supporting institutional framework.”

South Africa waking up

Lucky Montana, former CEO of Passenger Railways Agency of South Africa (PRASA), admitted at a press conference a few years ago that at least 2 000 coaches in South Africa have reached their 37-year lifespan, as they were built based on the 1920s technology.

If South Africa, Africa’s largest economy, has since set aside about US$7.7 billion to purchase 3 600 coaches and 2 000 locomotives, how much did Cameroon spend in the past 30 years to renew its ageing fleet?

Cameroon is Central Africa’s largest economy.

Faulty signalling

Bad, faulty signalling and railways tracks, most of which were installed and built by the European colonial masters, must also be done away with, and modernised, as they also contribute to many accidents.

“If we don’t get new and modern trains, our ability to transport people will be severely undermined,” Montana told journalists in 2011.

Cameroon government’s failure to modernise the country’s ‘old fashioned’ railways infrastructure has finally undermined its constitutional ability and duty to transport its people. The consequences of those failed policies are accidents of the nature that occured last week.

Though the causes of the crash are yet to be disclosed, many critics are already pointing fingers at the country’s old, ageing railways infrastructure.

Oldies are not always goodies

In some countries, unfortunately, governments have been paying huge sums of money to refurbish old trains and paint them with national colours, and brag at press conferences that ‘we have bought new trains to rehabilitate our railways transport system’.

Africa seriously needs to get tough on state corruption and lack of accountability and impunity, which seem to be undermining its economy’s ability to become competitive and improve the living conditions of its people, most of whom have been risking their lives to get to Europe due to hunger, dictatorship and economic hardships at home.

What to do?

Industry watchers believe that one of the options is to privatise Africa’s railways operating companies, most of which are unproductive and controlled by the state. But will that be enough to solve the problems?

“Most African railway companies have suffered losses over the last two decades. The main causes of the business deterioration include the low quality of service due to poor maintenance, and the shortage of public investment caused by a curtailment in the national budget allotted for railway facility investment,” the National Railways Master Plan Study in Cameroon said.

“Since the 1990s, African nations have promoted the privatisation of the railway operation in order to mitigate the national financial burden and induce private capital into the railway infrastructure.”

Some however urge governments which have privatised the rail companies not to relax but rather team up with these companies to improve the infrastructure.

Rail supports economic development

Tunis-based AfDB said rail transport was inevitably critical to supporting economic development and, unless this mode of transport is
developed, Africa may not realise its full potential in exploiting its abundant natural resources and wealth.

Experts say Africa has a US$100 billion infrastructure annual backlog , but is there anyone in these air conditioned offices listening?

Photo: Cameroon’s recent train accident that killed 70 and injured ver 600.
Credit: Aljazeera/Mahamat Mazou Aboubakar/Reuters

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