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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 November, 2004, 16:05 GMT
Looking back down the line
By Andrew Jeffrey
BBC, Huambo, Angola

A street in Huambo
Huambo was a key station on the Benguela Railway route
It was in 1902 that a Scot, Sir Robert Williams, located vast copper deposits in Katanga Province (now incorporated in the Democratic Republic of Congo) and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).

With the need to have a secure system of transport for the mineral excavations the Benguela Railway was developed.

Some 25 years later, in 1927, the 800 mile (1280 kilometre) line opened following much the same route as the former slave trade corridor.

In 1931, it was joined at Angola's eastern frontier by an extension of the then Bas-Congo Katanga line, creating the link to the continent's west coast at Lobito Bay in Angola.

Building this rail-line, saved 300 miles (480 kilometres) by rail, and 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometres) by sea on any journey from Katanga to Europe, via Rhodesia.

Building the line 1903 - 1914

Norton Griffiths and Co of London, was awarded the contract for the first part of the line.

The Governor General of Angola laid the first rails on 1 March, 1903, but very soon after, financial difficulties hit the project.
Archive picture of railway workers
A massive labour force was engaged in the building of the lines

Sir Robert Williams had failed to establish the necessary body corporate to finance and administer its construction.

But George Pauling, the renowned African railway contractor, was engaged. It was with his financial assistance, the building of the line re-commenced.

After three years of construction, 100 miles (160 kilometres) of track was completed.

The coastal route from Lobito to Benguela had turned inland toward the mountains at Cubal.

One particularly mountainous section of only two miles (three kilometres) included three bridges and cost 20,000 a mile - well in excess of the projected cost per mile for the whole railway.

Laying rail track
British engineers oversaw the railway building
With this excessive cost came the dismissal of Norton, Griffith and Co, and George Pauling took over the construction contract too.

By October 1910, Pauling had completed a further 100 miles (160 kilometres) of track and by 1912, the line reached Huambo.

It was here in Huambo that the company decided to establish their main locomotive and carriage works for maintaining and overhauling the entire rolling stock.

The company also built a "model" village of modern brick houses, a hospital, schools and social clubs. These are still in existence today, albeit in a dilapidated condition.
Loading the trains
Angolan natural resources were taken to the Atlantic coast to the world

The railway had a powerful influence on the economic development of the central plateau (planalto) area.

Williams obtained a lease for 625,000 acres of agricultural land which soon saw small local businesses flourish.

Corn mills, sawmills, tile works, lime quarries and agricultural settlements sprung up and the rail-line became their route to trade with Europe via the costal port of Lobito.

Benguela Railway 1914 - 1928

The outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914 brought with it shortages of money, men and materials, so the building of the line was stopped.

It was not until 1924, well after the cessation of hostilities in Europe, that building of the line was re-started.

In 1928, after a further stretch of 65 miles (104 kilometres) was built to accommodate the revised Congo / Angola border agreement, the line snaked through to Luau.
A bathroom in one of the railway carriages
It may have been rough outside, but opulence reined in the train

The Angolan section of the Benguela Railway was complete.

The official opening of the Benguela Railway took place on 6 June, 1929. It was one of "the events" of the African colonial calendar.

Sir Robert Williams was accompanied by his family, H R H Prince Arthur of Connaught and representatives of both the Portuguese and Belgian governments.

A special train was commissioned with some of the very latest rolling stock for the trip from the port of Lobito to the reception in Luau.

In 1960, a journey along the Benguela Railway from Lobito to Luau took three days.

The train would be drawn by a wood-burning engine heading south for Benguela.
Lobito docks
Final loading at Lobito docks before sailing for Europe and America

After reaching Benguela, the locomotive would be changed for a more powerful machine to tackle the more challenging route through the Coreteva mountains via the Binga and San Pedro Pass to Cubal, 50 miles inland.

This undulating route often saw even the most powerful locomotives reduced to speeds of only six-miles-per-hour when pulling a heavy goods load.

The sweet smell of success

From Cubal the route took the line through forests and farms to Caala. It was in this region that the railway management had an astute plan for fuel.

They had imported seedlings of fast growing Australian Eucalyptus and planted vast forests ready for harvesting for locomotive fuel.

With no supplies of oil or coal along the rail route, this was the perfect fuel.

It wafted out a unique aroma in the billowing smoke, one that only the Benguela Railway rolling stock had.

The train travelled overnight to Huambo and then on to Silva Porto (Kuito) in Bie province, where most passenger trains terminated.

The achievements of the Benguela Railway Company have all been on a massive scale.

Not least the building of the line through the mountainous Cubal region from Catumbella.
Rusted trains
A train graveyard that has not changed for decades

Steam trains ceased on the Lobito to Huambo run in 1974, when the company purchased 22 heavy main-line General Electric diesel locomotives.

With this acquisition, an historic aroma throughout the region came to an end.

The Angolan civil war brought a high level of destruction to the line at various points, but a genuine interest in the rehabilitation of the Benguela Railway is emerging that may once again see the rolling stock roll.

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Timeline: Angola
13 Nov 04 |  Country profiles

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