After independence, Zambia’s second largest revenue contributor after mining was the railway industry. Will the stalled Chipata-Mchinji railway line, with Chipata dry port in offer going to put back the once second industry to its position?
THE story of Zambia’s railway system started in 1905 when a sizeable crowd gathered north of the Victoria Falls to watch the first train, which consisted two or three wagons loaded with sleepers, rails and other construction materials arriving in the tourist capital.
However, in 1965, there were 7,000 railway workers in Zambia.
Over a million Zambians travelled using a train every year and what should be noted is that the Zambia section of Rhodesia Railways then covered 650 miles out of the total 2,600 miles, contributing about a third of the 30 million British pounds freight revenue.
According to research, after independence, railways’ revenue from hauling Zambia’s copper amounted to about 10 million British pounds a year.
For example, in 1938 freight carried amounted to 3,094, 000 tonnes while in 1947, the tonnage increased to 4,288, 000 and 11,600,000 tonnes were carried in 1963. Interestingly, the number of passengers increased to 4,300,000 from 858,000 in 1938.
Without Cecil Rhodes and his associate’s Cape to Cairo railway line dream, much of Zambia could have remained a jungle up to this day.
Today, tourists can walk to the Zimbabwe, side when they are in Livingstone because Cecil Rhodes and his men braved the lions and malaria using mainly ox-drawn wagons during the construction of the 19 mile line from the falls to Kalomo.
The railway started as part of Rhodesian Railways, the company which ran the railways of Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia as an integrated operation, which was one of the largest employers and enterprises in both countries prior to independence.
Rhodes put up a spirited investor fight that is lacking in the Chipata-Mchinji railway line project today.
At One point when the first railway line lacked resources, Rhodes went to London and addressed 1,000 shareholders of the chartered company to give him money for the railway line. At the end of his speech, 4,500,000 British pounds was pledged after he promised to pump in 700,000 British pounds of his personal money.
One wonders then why the Chipata-Mchinji railway has stalled since it was conceived in 1982 by the Zambia and Malawi governments as part of a bilateral project.
The Malawi section of the railroad was completed in 1984, though Zambia did not actively pursue the project until 2006.
Mchinji is a town in the Mchinji District of the central region of Malawi. As of 2008 estimates, Mchinji has a population of 25,184. Mchinji is also a major railroad junction, being the railhead nearest to Zambia.
On the other hand, Chipata which means, ‘Gate way’, is posed to be a hub of economic activities if the promoters of the Chipata-Mchinji project become serious with the project.
Rhodes did not fear to pump in his resources neither did he and his colleagues feared any hurdle be it man made, wild beasts, gorges or waterfalls like Victoria Falls but they were driven by personal ambitious to build the first railway line that stretches from Cape to Cairo.
The UNIP government under President Kenneth Kaunda started the Chipata-Mchinji railway project, then came MMD who had three republican presidents, namely Frederick Chiluba, Levy Patrick Mwanawasa and Rupiah Banda.
Former president Banda managed to commission the railway in 2010 and since then it has became a white elephant, begging the attention of Patriotic Front (PF) under President Sata.
The nation was happy when the first train rolled in from Malawi and the Chipata residents cheered sadly, the technocrats submitted in silence only to be heard in whispers as they murmured that the railway line does not have a dry port.
This is why Chipata-Mchinji railway could not start operating because there is no dry port, Eastern Province Minister Charles Banda explains.
“Many are wondering why the railway line is not operational, we have to set up a dry port first which will take us three years to finish,” Mr Banda says.
He says in an interim, ware-houses for wagons will be built so that cargo can be loaded and offloaded, adding that a draft report on the establishment of the port has been completed.
Mr Banda says despite the railway line project having been commissioned two years ago, it has not been operational largely due to the absence of a dry port which acts as a catchment area for cargo to be distributed in the province by road.
To this effect, the Chipata Dry Port draft report which was funded by the European Union (EU) was unveiled recently at a stakeholders meeting in Chipata.
The report revealed that just like many of its counterparts in Africa, Zambia has extensive mineral resources and is endowed with fertile agricultural land.
It has a stable Government which is dedicated to transform the country into a vibrant economic entity that is globally competitive.
“The most serious obstacles that impede the pursuit of this vision are the below-par condition and inadequacy of the existing transport and logistics infrastructure in the country as well the lack of sovereign access to the sea,” the report revealed.
Hence, dry ports in the region play an important role in that they first facilitate prompt discharge of cargo and containers from rail wagons and trucks, allowing increased turnaround for transport operators.
The ports also help avoiding using rail wagons and trucks as storage, thus freeing transport capacity and facilitate pre-customs clearance of goods, improving transit times and general efficiency.
Ports also allow shipping lines and freight forwarders to issue ‘through bills of lading’, making the container movement easier for the importer and exporter.
Most importantly, they reduce the need for controls to prevent smuggling and customs evasion as the shipments are destined for a controlled dry port where effective controls are in place at the same provide facilities where transporters can be accommodated and do routine maintenance tasks while performing their duties.
It must be noted that the Chipata dry port project was developed within the broad National policy Guidelines of Zambia. The project is also well aligned with other regional initiatives that seek to establish a powerful economic block in southern Africa. Hence, the draft report recommends that the development of a site adjacent to the existing rail station should establish a direct road connection to the Great East Road capable of safely handling the anticipated increased traffic volumes.
The report says the land upon which the dry port is to be built is part of a parcel of railway land and is thus Government owned. Arrangements will have to be made to transfer use of that land to the concessionaire for the purposes of running a dry port.
The reports states that cost of doing business in Zambia is very high, especially with regards to the transportation of goods compared to developed countries.
It further revealed that for a landlocked country such as Zambia, transport can make up to a third of the price of certain key goods because high transport costs and delays in transit times not only impact on the international trade but can reduce economic growth.
According to the draft report, there is need for the establishment of Chipata Port Authority which will discharge its obligations and functions as stipulated by the Zambian Ports Authority Act.
It is also recommended that Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA)’s Customs and Excise, ZRA should integrate some of its border functions (Mchinji) into the dry port while the Chipata Municipal Authority should plan and implement alternative access routes to the dry port.
Eastern Chamber of Commerce and Industry (EPPCI) president Thomas Mtonga says the dry port is welcome although the chamber will not do what Cecil Rhodes did.
“We are happy that the Minister (Charles Banda) promised the business community that in an interim ware houses will be built as we encourage our members to start using the railway line to transport their farming inputs such cotton, maize and groundnuts,” Mr Mtonga says.
Recently, during a Parliamentary on spot tour, Chifumu Banda shook his head in disbelief while showing former communication and transport minister Geoffrey Lungwangwa the water stained roof of the deserted Chipata rail station.
Professor Lungwangwa simply said: “the MMD Government commissioned the rail line which was supposed to boost trade triangle among Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique sadly; the facility has not been used after the first train passed through it.”