When the car stopped I woke up and enquired of the ‘battered’ Steve where we were. It was around 5 am and the commuting public could be seen even at that hour. Most schools and offices start business at 7.30 am, I understand. We were about 20 kms short of the Tanzanite Hotel. Then we hit the most incredible traffic jam I have encountered in my life. It took us over 3 hours to travel the 20 kms and get to the hotel. I did not have anything much lined up for the day and hence asked Irfan if I could meet with the Managing Director of Tazara Railways. I was keen to know how Railways are organized in Tanzania and get a larger picture of the African Rail system, if possible. The resourceful young man got me an appointment for the afternoon, till when I relaxed in the Hotel.
I had a most interesting meeting with Mr. Lewnika, the MD of Tazara in his office. And I learnt the following from him.
Tanzania has two railway systems – the Tanzanian Railway Corporation (TRC) and the Tanzania Zambia Railway Authority (Tazara). The Tazara railway line was built to give landlocked Zambia a link to the port of Dar, as an alternative to its export rail routes via erstwhile Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique. The rail link was a project financed and executed by China costing about $500 million, making it the largest foreign-aid project undertaken by China at the time. The railway was originally envisioned in the 1930s and till the 60s the project was considered economically unviable and floundered for funding. Strategically, with the West shutting off all funding avenues to the project, the leaders of the newly independent States of Tanzania and Zambia turned to China and secured their financial and physical commitment to the terrain challenged project.
Tazara railway spans 1,860 km from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia. The railway is often regarded as one of the greatest engineering feats of its kind. The railway took only five years to build and was finished ahead of schedule in 1975. It is said that before the construction actually began 12 Chinese surveyors travelled for nine months on foot from Dar es Salaam to Mbeya to fix the alignment of the railway line. Thereafter, about 50,000 Tanzanians and 25,000 Chinese were engaged to construct the historical railway. The Chinese labor was rumored to have been convict labor. Braving the challenging environment and natural elements the workers successfully laid the track through some of Africa's most rugged landscape. The work involved moving 330,000 tonnes of steel rail and the construction of 300 bridges, 23 tunnels and 147 stations. The bridge across the Mpanga River towers 160 feet and the Irangi tunnel is more than two kms long. Construction of the Mlimba (the Kingdom of Elephants) to Makambako (the Place of Bulls) section was considered to be the most difficult along the route, crossing mountains and steep valleys. The railway passes between the Mikumi NP and the Selous Game Reserve. Hence, travelers on this railway get the opportunity to see the rich wildlife of Selous, which with time have got used to the rumbling noise of the train. From Mbeya town, the railway heads northwestwards and crosses into Zambia at Tunduma.
The gauge of the railway was kept at 1067 mm to match that in the Zambian Railways that are connected to Zimbabwe and South Africa. Thus, Tazara is a point of access to the railway systems of Central and Southern Africa. Tazara has never been profitable and more recently it has suffered from competition from road transport and the re-orientation of Zambia's economic links towards South Africa after the end of apartheid. A Tanzanian newspaper described the railway's condition in late 2008 as being "on the verge of collapse due to financial crisis". It is understood that the Chinese government stepped in with some much needed assistance to the financially crippled Tanzania-Zambia Railways Authority to revive its operations.
Tazara is connected to the TRC, which has a gauge of 1000 mm, at the transshipment station of Kidatu and inside the Dar Port. The Tanzania Railways Corporation (TRC) is state owned and operates a railway network that was once part of the East African Railways Corporation (EARC) operating in Kenya, Uganda and the erstwhile Tanganyika. TRC spans about 2,600 km.
In 2007 RITES of India won a contract to operate passenger and freight services on a concession basis for 25 years. The concession agreement did not take off for various reasons and the government terminated the contract and resumed control in 2010.
It was fascinating to get the story of the Railways from Mr Lewnika. Later we met over dinner at the swanky ‘Sea Cliff’ Hotel with the Indian Ocean on one side for company. Mr Lewnika had held various positions in the private and public sectors in Zambia, even being a Cabinet Minister, prior to being given charge of the Tazara. He mentioned that his father, who was a founder member of the Northern Rhodesia Freedom Movement, had travelled to India in 1950 and visited Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai. He had met with Pandit Nehru and Indira Gandhi during his trip. Mr Lewnika expressed a deep desire to trace the journey of his father to and in India.