Some observation on rail and road transport in Commonwealth tropical Africa
Due, John F.
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The railways of tropical Africa have undergone drastic changes in the past two decades. On the one hand, some major extensions and improvements have been made, of which the most significant is TAZARA, linking Zambia with Dar es Salaam. On the other hand, the near monopoly position has been shattered by the development of road transport, which has deflected substantial traffic that would otherwise have gone by rail, particularly high-value commodities. At the same time with emphasis on road building, the rail systems, except in Central Africa, have been neglected to varying degrees by governments, with a resulting inability even to carry all the traffic that is available, and there has been considerable deterioration in performance. Finally in some areas, political changes have either reduced traffic or resulted in major realignments of traffic patterns. A major consequence has been loss of profits and growing deficits. Despite the overall deterioration, however, the railroads in most tropical African countries continue to play a significant role in the transport picture and it is generally agreed that rail costs are lower than road transport costs where volume of traffic is substantial. The volume on the major routes is sufficiently great so that the lines are almost certainly economically justifiable, but some of the branch lines are questionable. In Central Africa, although the systems have been seriously affected by political events, much greater stress has been placed on the role of the railways than in either East or West Commonwealth Africa. There is also some evidence of a shift in government policy in other areas toward renewed emphasis on rail transport. All of the governments face a basic dilemma, however: if rail costs are to be kept low, volume must be maintained - yet for some traffic road transport offers real advantages. Earlier attempts to protect the railroads by drastic road transport licensing rules have largely been abandoned. A distinction must be made between the traffic for which road transport offers such great advantage that it is uneconomic to keep it on rail, and the substantial amount which can move by either mode with only marginal advantages or disadvantages. It is difficult for the more free-enterprise-oriented economies to control the mode of transportation used; countries such as Tanzania and Zambia are in a much better position to ensure the allocation of traffic along optimal lines.