Sudan's railways running out of steam
KHARTOUM — The freight train rumbles over the Blue Nile bridge and
snakes through the capital. It could take weeks to reach its
destination, in Darfur, for despite the potential to link up a divided
nation, Sudan's railways are derelict, after years of sanctions and
With more than 5,000 kilometres (3,100 miles) of track,
Sudan has one of the longest railways in Africa, extending from Port
Sudan on the Red Sea to Nyala in the war-torn west, and from Wadi Halfa
on the Egyptian border to Wau in the far south.
But it now carries
less than six percent of Sudanese traffic, and the last passenger train
to depart from north Khartoum station left six months ago, according to
a policeman guarding the empty building.
Prior to that they ran
twice a week, he said, leaving early in the morning and arriving at the
northern border town the following evening, covering a distance of
around 900 kilometres.
"There are passenger trains still running.
But they are very rare," admitted Mohammed Ahmed Makkawi, the general
manager of Sudan Railways Corporation.
Sudan's railways prospered
in the 1960s and 1970s, driven by a thriving agricultural sector and
foreign investment, and their decline mirrors the wider stagnation of
the Sudanese economy.
Like other officials in the sector, Makkawi
blames the poor state of Sudan's narrow-gauge train system on US
economic sanctions, first imposed in 1997 and renewed as recently as
"Most of our locomotives are from America, but most of
them are out of service because of sanctions. We can't get spare parts,"
he told AFP.
"We are trying to get financing for another track,
to make it a standard gauge, so that it can carry a lot of equipment and
goods and passengers, and be much more reliable," he added.
Khartoum has managed to buy new locomotives from China in recent years.
plans to build a new line from Port Sudan to Khartoum, the busiest
route, would cost an estimated $1 billion (or 705 billion euros), money
that the destitute Sudanese government simply does not have.
"The existing tracks are very old," Makkawi said.
of the tracks are indeed ancient -- a staggering 73 percent of the
railway lines were constructed before 1930 -- with the 50-kilometre
branch line connecting Muglad to the Abu Jabra oil field being one of
just a few to be built in the last half century.
connected to Aweil, a town in the soon to be independent south, with
trains carrying thousands of southerners there prior to January's
landmark referendum on independence for the region.
But the line
down to Wau, which was used by the Sudanese government in its 22-year
war against the southern rebels, was out of action for many years after
the bridge in Aweil was destroyed, although railways officials say it
was fixed in 2010.
Ironically, it was conflict that initially prompted the development of Sudan's railway.
first section of the present-day network was built by the British in
the late nineteenth century to support their military operations against
Sudanese leader Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi, who had defeated the colonial
forces some ten years earlier.
It was later expanded, and used
profitably to export animals, sugar and cotton primarily from Gezira
state, Sudan's agricultural heartland south of Khartoum, between the
Blue and White Nile.
But despite a string of belated reforms in
2005, the Gezira farming scheme has experienced gradual stagnation, and
the railway system declined partly as a result.
professor of African social and economic history at Ohio State
University, points to another key factor in its demise, namely the
determination of successive governments to suppress the rail workers
union, which formed the core of Sudan's once-powerful labour movement.
railway continued to prosper until the early 1980s, and its decline was
the result of a combination of economic and political factors," he told
"The current government bears a big responsibility as it
dismantled whatever was left. In 1992, it dismissed thousands of railway
workers and trade union activists."
"In my view, this has nothing to do with sanctions," he added.
workers now receive paltry salaries, the SRC suffers from chronic
administrative problems, the trains and tracks require extensive
maintenance and passengers report frequent stoppages.
Abdel Fadeel al-Nur had a particularly bad experience last year.
28-year-old engineer got a job with the rural development fund in
Nyala, South Darfur, and had to get five tractors there from Khartoum,
so he decided to put them on the train, having done the 900-kilometre
journey some years earlier in just three days.
"I left Khartoum on May 13 and arrived in Nyala on June 13," said Nur.
stopped for one day in Sennar, because of technical problems, and then
again in Kosti for three days. Then we stopped for 12 days in Rahad, for
more technical repairs to the train. We were also delayed because of
fighting in Darfur," he added.
"I don't think I will ever travel again by train."