Malawi’s tough task of reviving its railway sector

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By Maston Kaiya

DEVELOPED in 1908, Malawi’s railway system should be a pillar of the country’s transport sector but for over two decades, the network has become a white elephant.

The biggest losers are Malawians, most who live in rural areas, who for years depended on the railway system to transport their goods and agricultural products.

Smallholder farmers also benefitted a lot from the rail, as it was a cheaper mode of transportation and affordable before the railway crumbled.

Before its decay, the railway system offered cargo and passenger service trains for three main routes, from Blantyre to Marka in Nsanje, then Blantyre to Lilongwe via Balaka and Lilongwe to Mchinji.

Malawi Railways, a government owned company was in control of services at the railway but failed to upgrade until the early 1990’s when the company was sold and the Central East African Railway (CEAR) bought most shares. 

The country’s railways continued to degrade in 1994 when there was change of government from Malawi Congress Party (MCP) to United Democratic Front (UDF), whose policy on transport sector drastically changed.

The new UDF led government insisted too much on the use of haulage trucks to carry goods from ports of Nacala and Beira in Mozambique, to Durban in South Africa and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

When its railway network was viable, Malawi was connected to neighbouring countries -Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

“We used to travel by train to Rhodesia now Zimbabwe to work in the mines at Heart fields in 1950’s,” recalled retired miner, James Matipwiri from southern Malawi district of Mulanje.

He said Malawian miners used to travel via rail to Rhodesia for employment and education, which was one of the most interesting journeys most young Nyasa’s liked to undertake.

Matipwiri said the transport fares for passengers to Rhodesia were very fair and many were able to travel abroad through railways.

“The country’s rail network was promising looking at its connectivity through Mozambique to Rhodesia but the situation changed during the time of war in Mozambique after 1975,” he explained.

The former miner added that some who worked in Beira and Quelimane often used the train to travel and challenges were less.

A local businessman from Thekerani in Thyolo, Godfrey Nyasaland complained that hard to reach areas were more accessible through via train than by the road.

He noted how damage to the rail tracks over the years due to natural or man-made elements, had negatively impact their businesses and livelihood.

“When passenger services train used to operate from Limbe to Marka, we used to have more business and employment opportunities offered to many people,” Nyasaland said.

He suggested that government must reconsider the rehabilitation of rail, set aside some funds and revive the country rail carrier for the betterment of many people.

A Bangula resident, Symon Nathaya said the dead rail system from Limbe to Bangula had resulted in some scrupulous residents moving onto the railway line.

“You will be shocked to see what is happening in Bangula, some businessmen have built their shops on rail tracks and no one has taken action to stop them. It is a deplorable sight,” he observed.

The railway network in the country has also suffered from wash aways. This occurred in 1989 at Bangula, 2007 in Chiromo and 2015, where there was extensive damage at Mankhanga.

To revive the Malawi Railways, a lot of investment is required to rehabilitate the infrastructure, such as the railway line, railway stations and staff houses that have long been ben un-operational.

Recently, the government disclosed that it has secured US$365 000 (MK262 million) for the rehabilitation of the Limbe to Marka railway line that was built in 1979.

The railway line was heavily damaged by flooding in 1989 at Mtayamoyo in Bangula just four kilometres from Kamuzu Bridge at Chiromo.

Ministry of Transport and Public Works Railway Services Department Director, Geoffrey Magwede said government had come up with a National Transport Master Plan that agitated for more transportation of cargo through railway and marine.

He said this would reduce costs hence the need to rehabilitate the railway line, which has been idle for years.

“Transporting cargo through road has proved to be expensive. The country will be saving over US$59 million (MK44 billion) annually once the National Transport Master Plan is executed,” Magwede pointed out.

The Director bemoaned that theft of railway facilities was another challenge to the development of the country’s rail network.

“We appeal to people not to encroach on the railway line and those who are along the facility to peacefully pave way for the reconstruction project. No compensation will be paid because the occupied land is meant for the railway line,” Magwede said.

On the Limbe-Marka railway line constructed in 1908 but was away by floods in 1987, Magwede said its reconstruction would be completed soon as the first phase was to be finalised in the next two months.

Magwede explained that delays were caused by training casual labourers on how to transfer the railway lines from Bangula to Marka.

The Director of Public Services said his department was waiting for Parliament to approve the budget for the actual works as the first phase was bankrolled only to rescue railway materials.

Malawi has come up with a joint initiative with Mozambique and Zambia to have a viable and well connected railway system between them.

A Brazilian company Vale was engaged for the rehabilitation of the railway line from Moatize in Tete Province of Mozambique through Malawi to Nacala, to transport mostly coal.

The rehabilitation process has significantly helped the transportation of goods and also provided employment opportunities to both Mozambicans and Malawians.

In 2018, Malawi launched its National Master Plan to upgrade its transport sector and railway development was given a priority where the government committed to make sure funding levels improved.

The National Master Plans envisages that once the railway sector in revamped, road maintenance costs would reduce drastically and lessen burden on the Ministry of Transport and Public Works’ yearly budgetary allocations.