How can Africa’s under-developed railway network become one of the most modern in the world?

7 min read

Africa’s under-developed railway infrastructure can use best practice from more developed regions to become one of the most modern networks in the world, according to industry experts.

Last December, Senegal’s Regional Express train made its inaugural journey between the capital Dakar and Diamniadio, an industrial city 35km away. The new US$1.3 billion commuter railway is the first new rail project in the country since independence from France in 1960, and the latest electrified railway project on the continent.

President Macky Sall called the project a “historic first”. “We opted for a rapid railway, equipped with the latest technologies, a standard gauge railway with a hybrid traction, diesel and electric,” he said in a statement. “A great revolution is happening in our urban and interurban transit systems.”

Just 15% of Africa’s railways are currently electrified, but the continent has great ambitions. The African Integrated High Speed Railway Network (AIHSRN) is a flagship component of the African Union (AU) Agenda 2063, its long-term vision for the continent: it seeks to develop an extensive railway network across Africa that will connect cities and regions, all of it (eventually) electrified.

The reason for this push is simple: electric trains are better than diesel-powered ones. “They perform better,” says Dr Stuart Hillmansen, head of the Traction Research Group at the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE). “You may be able to run more services because they accelerate better and brake better.”

The caveat is that electrification works best in countries that have an abundant power supply, reliable grids, and dense population, which is not the case in much of Africa. It is also significantly more expensive than non-electrified rail, something the AU acknowledges.

“Relative to diesel operation, electrification has high capital costs with lower annual operating costs. As such, significant revenues are needed to justify the additional investment for electrification,” the AIHSRN masterplan notes. “As a principle, provisions for electrification should be made even if lines are intended to be diesel operated for an indefinite period.”

Electrification projects

Currently, most electrified lines are concentrated in the continent’s more developed economies such as South Africa, Morocco, and Egypt. Several electrified railway projects in sub-Saharan Africa are starting to appear however, which have found ways around unreliable power supplies and cost barriers.

The Ethiopia-Djibouti railway for instance built its own dedicated power line for the locomotive’s power source to avoid having to rely on the ageing public utility grid, explains Mebratu Delelegn, director of operations control centers at Ethio-Djibouti Railway (EDR). “This is a government project, so the government has agreed to prioritize power supply to that line,” he says. Train stations and signaling on the other hand rely on the national grid and are subject to frequent outages, for which EDR uses back-up generators.

Ethiopia is also investing in wind energy and Delelegn is studying how it could be used to power traction directly (as opposed to indirectly through the grid). The main challenge with renewable energy such as wind or solar is that its output varies, which makes it challenging for locomotive traction. Delelegn is therefore doing his PhD on how to regulate such variations through better forecasting and smart grids.

“Having a direct renewable energy source would reduce cost and improve reliability of power supply for railway lines,” says Delelegn. “The whole world is looking at renewable energy right now so I am hopeful that this is something we could see within five years.”

Tanzania too is powering ahead with a five-phase electrified line between Dar Es Salaam and Mwanza. The first phase is completed, the second phase is under construction and procurement of the remaining phases have been given high political priority because it will link Tanzania with its neighbors. The project will be powered through the grid.

Alternative traction

Dr Marcelo Blumenfeld, industrial fellow for Introducing Innovation at BCRRE, is conscious that such multi-billion-dollar rail projects are out of the reach of many low-income countries. “We ran a small study in Asia that showed that most countries would not have enough power to run electric trains. They would have to upgrade their entire power grids first. Many may not have the funds to justify electric rail. That’s why we decided to look at alternatives,” he says.

Alternative options include battery, ammonia, and hydrogen, of which the latter is the most advanced. “Hydrogen is ready now,” says Hillmansen. “We have been looking at this for more than a decade. The UK has an extensive branch network in the countryside, and it was those routes that we realized would be very uneconomical to electrify. That’s why we developed HydroFLEX.”

HydroFLEX is one of the world’s first hydrogen-powered trains. It was manufactured by re-engineering existing electric rolling stock and installing a hydrogen power system. “It’s upscaling existing assets to give them a second life without fossil fuel,” says Hillmansen. “There is no reason why that cannot be rolled out across the world. Lots of railways have rolling stock that’s stabled somewhere and there is a big potential for re-engineering it.”

Hillmansen says that HydroFLEX can be used for passenger transport and that they are now looking at how to apply that to freight transport too.

Battery technology is another option in Africa, but the main issue is that it doesn’t store enough energy and isn’t suited to the African rail context. “Some lines may be able to work with battery, but it would have to be passenger and localized whereas African rail tends to be mixed and long distance,” points out Blumenfeld.

As for ammonia, it has potential but still requires further development: the fuel can be produced without fossil fuel, so it’s potentially a very green fuel, unlike hydrogen, which comes in many “shades”. It’s also easier to store than composite hydrogen, notes Hillmansen.

Act now

Decarbonizing the railway isn’t just a matter of technology, however. National strategies and procurement are key issues too. “Rail vehicles have a very long shelf-life: if you buy a diesel vehicle now, it will be around in 2040/2050 when most of the net-zero deadlines have been set. Every decision a government makes now will resonate in 30 years’ time, so we really are at a crossroads,” says Blumenfeld.

Olawale Rasheed, CEO of the African Railway Consulting and a member of the ministerial committee on railway reform in Nigeria, agrees. “You need a visionary outlook to understand that decarbonization is a long-term endeavor, and many governments don’t realize you must get the foundations for that now,” he says.

Many governments will simply opt for the cheapest and most reliable technology at the time of procurement and because many rail projects usually come with international financing, the choice of technology is usually constrained by the lender and contractor. “The current [Nigerian] government trusts the Chinese too much,” adds Rasheed. “You see the same old technology with locomotives. There is a lack of ambition from politicians who cannot see beyond old diesel locomotives,” he says.

In fact, Rasheed says that the issue in Nigeria (and other countries with limited rail infrastructure) is that they haven’t even got the basics right: “Nigeria is still on the 1958 Railway Act. We are yet to update the legal framework,” he bemoans.

But Lucie Anderton, head of sustainability at the International Union of Railways (UIC), says that it is precisely because railway is relatively under-developed that the potential for sustainability gains is so great. “There is an opportunity with the “build back better” momentum to learn from more developed railway systems and leapfrog to an efficient and modern railway,” she says. In September 2021, the UIC Africa published its Sustainability Pledge, which notably seeks to make African rail carbon neutral by 2050.

Anderton says that good eco-design, which considers the use of recycled, recyclable, or low-carbon materials or upcycling rolling stock, makes a big difference in the embedded carbon footprint of a project. Energy efficiency is another important consideration: digitization and operational solutions can optimize freight and service capacity whilst eco-driving techniques can reduce energy consumption.

Knowledge transfer and capacity building will be key to achieving these sustainability targets. The UIC Africa, which has 22 members, was set up to do just that. The BCRRE too is keen to promote learning and developed a rail academy in Ethiopia with funding from German development agency GIZ and the European Commission. “The idea is that we match rail from the developed world with rail from the developing world. It’s slower but it has a huge impact,” Blumenfeld concludes.

Renewable energy in Africa on the rise

Not all power generation is equal when it comes to green-house gas emissions. Greenest of all are renewable energies, which have had a long presence on the continent, albeit with relatively small production capacities. Hydropower for instance has had a long presence in Egypt, Ghana, Lesotho and will account for a substantial proportion of Ethiopia’s energy output in the next few years with the completion of the Grand Renaissance Dam.

Geothermal, meanwhile, is well established in Kenya. Wind and solar are growing rapidly too but remain marginal in terms of installed capacity. In fact, much of Africa’s electricity is still generated from fossil fuels and biomass, with renewables accounting for less than 5% of the total energy produced.

The dirtiest of all is coal-fired, which makes up the bulk of electricity generation in South Africa. This does impact on the carbon emissions of electrified railway projects. When the Gautrain, the express commuter rail system serving greater Johannesburg in South Africa, was inaugurated in 2010, the project was criticized for not being as “clean” as it claimed.

Hillmansen says that the carbon emissions of an oil-fired power generation will be like those of a diesel locomotive. Coal-fired power generation will be worse, however. “But in countries with a mix of generation such as the UK, it turns out that running electric trains is three times better than diesel trains in terms of CO2 emissions,” he explains.

With renewable energy set to account for nearly 50% of power generation on the continent by 2050, Africa’s rail is set to become greener.

The Sustainable Railways Africa Pledge

The International Union of Railways (UIC) – African Region, on behalf of the African railway community, released its sustainability pledge in September 2021, which outlines its commitment to bolster the development of African railways and support eco-mobility in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Here are some of the key points:

Target market share for rail to 25% by 2050 by:

  1. Innovating in processes, services, customer information and reactivity, to transform it into an accessible, seamlessly connected, and effective customer experience.
  2. Accelerate the digital transformation of the value-chain for rail transport and production facilities. 3. Adopt pro-active charging policies to make rail more accessible, whilst combining the limitations of purchasing power, environmental requirements, and the need for flexibility.

Target the carbon neutrality of African rail by 2050 by:

  1. Delivering innovative solutions to increase energy efficiency and phase out diesel services.
  2. Prioritizing renewable energy sources.
  3. Working together as a region to share best practice and common solutions.
  4. Embedding circular economy principles to help combat resource depletion and the impacts of material and waste production: recycling and reusing end-of-life products in all processes associated with railway activity.
  5. Integrating an eco-design approach during the study, design, and development project phases of new infrastructure.