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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 December 2004, 10:19 GMT
Lifeline to Angola's future
By Andrew Jeffrey
BBC, Huambo, Angola

Benguela Railway
So many of the original bridges have been destroyed

Angola's trans-Africa Bengeula Railway is being gradually reinstated. After nearly 30 years of bitter civil war, this could be a major factor in establishing a secure future for the country.

The Benguela Railway, at one time, ran from the Angolan coastal port of Lobito through to Zambia. From its opening in 1928, it was an important arterial route for trade.

Today, in the aftermath of 30 years of war, it could yet again become pivotal to Angola's re-development.

There are 840 miles (1344 kilometres) of track, running west to east from the Atlantic port of Lobito to Luau on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It was once an important trading link for Angola's natural commodities of maize, wheat, cotton coffee, cotton, sugar and cattle.

It also opened up a vital copper trade route for landlocked Zambia.

A viable future?

But from the 1970s, during the Angolan war years, this trading link for thousands of Angolans was severed in countless places.

It became unusable through deliberate mining and wanton destruction - largely by the Unita rebels who controlled much of the southern countryside the line passed through.
Rusting trains
The rolling stock will have to be completely replaced

An Italian company, Tor di Valle, secured an ambitious redevelopment agreement in 1997.

They were to re-build the line in exchange for 91,400 acres of indigenous eucalyptus trees.

But the plan did not get beyond the negotiating table.

However, since the declaration of peace between the MPLA Government and the rebel Unita troops in April 2002, there have been more serious efforts to fund the reinstatement of the line.

Baam Le Roux, of the International Union of Railways (IUR) said his organisation will be backing the rehabilitation of the Benguela Railway.

"The representation of the IUR in Africa will attract investments for the execution of actions meant for the rehabilitation of the Benguela Railways," he said, while not disclosing the sums involved.

The Managing Director of Benguela Railways (CFB), Daniel Quipaxe is looking forward to the repairs being completed.

He said that they have 13 engines available to provide the service and others are awaiting repairs.

He is optimistic that the line repairs will not take long: "The rehabilitation of the Lobito to Huambo 450 kilometre railroad will be complete by the end of December (2004).

"Already 98 kilometres (61 miles) of railroad have been repaired in Angola's central Benguela province, plus 34 kilometres (22 miles) in the Huambo region," he added.

But reconstruction of the railway line, stations and bridges will not be easy, as Angola is still Africa's most densely mined country.

And, with the mining problem added to natural obstacles, such as numerous collapsed ravines in its path, the task is colossal.

Mine devastation

Mines have proven to be a huge problem for the reconstruction plans.

Rusted train
British engineering was at the heart of the Benguela Railway
The Halo Trust, a mine clearance organisation, has concentrated its work in Angola in the Planalto province of Bie, Huambo and Benguela.

These provinces form the corridor along which the Benguela Railway runs.

During the war years, the MPLA Government and supporting Cuban armed forces laid mapped defensive minefields around key installations and the civil infrastructure along the route of the line.

The Unita rebels also mined roads and approaches to their strategic bases.

After the 1992 country-wide elections were repudiated by Unita, they resumed the war against the MPLA government.

It was then that the two sides randomly scattered mines in the fight for provincial capitals.

The legacy of such haphazard actions is a long and painstaking de-mining programme. This has inevitably slowed down the process of opening the rail-line.

Tired tracks

Currently, the rail-line is open and running along two lengths.

Long rural road out of Huambo
Hundreds of miles of Angola's roads are still mined
One runs from the port of Lobito through to Benguela on the Atlantic coast and the other runs from Huambo to Caala in the central planalto region.

But that still leaves 1220 kilometres (763 miles) of track and numerous stations in need of vital investment.

It is in Huambo that the state of the current railway can be appreciated.

Around six o'clock each morning, the long low hoot of the locomotive's horn and the grinding of steel wheels on rusted track can be heard above the sparse noise of city life.

In the sidings of the Huambo railway station, the ghosts of former workers linger amongst the decaying steam engines, most of which carry British plates of manufacture, but, for many years, no passengers.

The former workers brick built houses, clinics and social clubs still stand in their faded pastel colours, reflecting the jaded state of the railway's prosperity.

Loading bays for maize, cotton, cattle and coffee lay silent too.

Just the scuttle of the odd rat or cat is heard by the solitary guard who's eyes are scanning dormant engines that no-one could steal even if they wanted.

Friends in high places

But some Sundays the railway comes alive.

Family on two bicycles
Whole families can regularly be seen on bikes
The carriages burst at the seams on the 46 kilometre (29 mile) journey from Huambo to Caala.

Angola is predominantly Christian, and the congregation of Huambo's Roman Catholic Church make a not infrequent journey to sing their praises heavenward in front of Caala station.

Then, after the train returns from Calenga, a further 19 kilometres (12 miles) down the line, they return to Huambo.

But it may be a long time before their Christian massage can get much further up the line nearer to the Angolan eastern border.

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