The New Steel Age? Economic Development and the African Railway Renaissance

The African Union (AU) has pioneered a vision of a network of high-speed railways to link up all the major African cities. This paper draws on lessons from the railways of the nineteenth century to help us answer questions about the prospects of the African railway renaissance today.

If Breaking Bad had been on Netflx in the middle of the nineteenth century Walter White would not have dealt in crystal meth to earn his corrupt fortune. Walter White would have become a railway entrepreneur. Railways turned little men into industrial tycoons. Leland Stanford owned a general store until he helped found the Central Pacific Railroad in 1861. Stanford later became governor of California and tossed out some spare change from his vast fortune to establish Stanford University. Many more small farmers and traders were squeezed into poverty by the ruthless profiteering of the railways.

In the twentieth century railways were nationalized, regulated, declined, and then failed in competition with cars and trucks.

In 2022 railways are back. Leading the revolution in glistening steel is China, where in the twenty years to 2021 more than 40,000 km of high-speed railways were built.

In the nineteenth century Britain dreamed of a Cairo to Cape Town railway. Today the African railway dream has moved to Ethiopia.

Headquartered in Ethiopia the African Union (AU) has pioneered a vision of a network of high-speed railways to link up all the major African cities.

This paper draws on lessons from the raucous-rapacious-revolutionary railways of the nineteenth century to help us answer questions about the prospects of the African railway renaissance today.

A sample of those questions

As railways are being built is the steel and cement imported or sourced from locally growing manufacturing firms?

What is the danger that railways will induce politically powerful losers (such as the trucking industry) to block the efficiency gains of better transport access?

Will the Chinese government and the AU be able to implement a continental-wide infrastructure vision?

Are Chinese and other lenders patient enough to endure the bankruptcies and long-term loss making that will inevitably feature in the African railway renaissance?

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