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Benguela Railway Promises To Open Angola's Interior

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Benguela Railway will run from Lobito to Luau.
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Benguela Railway

Cost: $1.56 billion

Construction period: 2006-12

For decades, the east-west, 1,344-kilometer-long Benguela Railway spanning Angola provided the shortest way to transport the Congo’s mineral riches to Europe and was the key leg of Africa’s only transcontinental route. The railway company, Caminhos de Ferro de Benguela, was also Angola’s largest employer, with a payroll of 14,000 by the 1960s. But Angola’s long civil war, from 1975 to 2002, terminated the line. Trains and repair crews were ambushed, stations bombed and bridges dynamited, and the right-of-way was mined.

In 2006, the China International Fund agreed to provide $300 million to begin rebuilding the railway. The reconstruction contract was awarded to the China Railway 20 Bureau Group Corp.

Before work could begin, mine removal was necessary. Now, the effort is being spearheaded by the HALO Trust, a non-governmental organization based in Scotland. Over the past decade, HALO teams of "deminers" have cleared two dozen minefields along the Benguela route in the Benguela, Bie and Huambo provinces, according to Gerhard Zank, HALO’s South African desk officer. To date, workers have cleared a total area of 30,000 hectares and removed 2,012 mines as well as unexploded ordinance.

Various Angolan government agencies have conducted additional mine clearance. One of these agencies, the National Demining Institute, has completed demining work along the Huambo-to-Kuito section of the line, and construction is now under way along that section.

The rebuilding effort began in 2006, with the arrival in Lobito of a ship carrying 30,000 tons of building materials from China. Crews started near the line's terminus in Lobito and proceeded eastward. By August 2011, service was restored eastward to Huambo from Lobito, a distance of 423 km. Situated on the Angolan plateau about 1,700 meters above sea level, Huambo is a commercial hub and home to the railway's major repair yard.

Reconstruction of the remaining 921 km of track—from Huambo to Luau, on the Congo border—is expected to be completed by December 2012, according to Zhang Feng, deputy director of the contractor's Angola office. Additional time will be needed for ancillary construction, such as signaling systems, maintenance yards and the 64 stations along the route.

According to Angola's transport minister, Augusto Tomas, the railway, when it is fully operational, will be able to carry 20 million tonnes of cargo and four million passengers annually.

The railway is expected to have a major economic impact. “It will link the interior of the country, which was devastated by the civil war, to the coast,” explains Lucy Corkin, research associate at the Africa-Asia Centre at the University of London and former project director of the Centre for Chinese Studies, at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. “Most of Angola’s economic infrastructure is concentrated in the capital, Luanda. The Benguela Railway is important in terms of access to the interior.”

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