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Sitting next to the colonial British railway director’s old residence on the banks of the Nile River, the general manager of the Sudanese Railways Corporation chuckles to himself.
Over a well-sugared tea and plain biscuits, Waleed Mahmoud Ahmed slowly explains his grand task.
He must find a way to resurrect the third-largest railway network in Africa and restore one of his country’s proudest institutions to its former glory. “It’s not good at all,” he says. “The policies of the last regime destroyed a large part of our railways.”
Mansory, a worker at the Khartoum railway workshop CREDIT: Simon Townsley/The Telegraph
Last month, Sudan announced a half billion-pound plan to revamp its decrepit railway network that was first built more than a century ago by invading British colonialists.
It is one part of the new government’s plan to fundamentally rebuild the state after the dictatorship of Omar Bashir, ended in a 2019 revolution.
The World Food Programme (WFP) told the Telegraph that a functioning railway system in this corner of the world could throw a “lifeline” to millions, helping humanitarians get food to the starving in Darfur, South Sudan and Tigray.
The modern history of Sudan can be told through its railways, argues Mustapha Ahmed Fadul, the director of a small lovingly-kept museum in the junction town of Atbara, a short stroll from decaying, palatial colonial residence.
His museum tells how some of the first narrow-gauge lines were laid down from Cairo by General Herbert Kitchener’s invading Anglo-Egyptian army in the late 1890s.
Kitchener used the trains to supply his troops as they marched through the desert. When they reached the outskirts of the capital Khartoum, his force massacred 12,000 poorly equipped Mahdist soldiers with machine guns and claimed the vast nation for the British Empire.
Some sixty years later, the Sudanese railway hit back. Tens of thousands of railway trade unionists clamoured for freedom, making Britain’s position untenable.
“Change in Sudan has always started from here in Atbara,” says the old museum director, as he hurries inside to escape a rising sandstorm. “See this?” he says, holding a hunk of coal up in his hand. “This is from Barnsley. The steam trains used to run on it.”
On independence from Britain in 1956, some 2,500 miles of tracks crisscrossed the desert. Trains powered from the gold mines in the west to cotton and wheat fields in the east onto the Red Sea, binding the new Sudan together.
A few of the many worn-out and damaged locomotives at the Atbara railway workshops CREDIT: Simon Townsley
But then in 1989 came Mr Bashir. The hardline Islamist dictator gave his generals a lucrative trucking monopoly and broke the back of the trade union, leaving the railways to rust in a haze of corruption and mismanagement.
Following his ousting Sudan’s transitional government hopes to boost its crashing economy and connect the old lines to landlocked Ethiopia, Chad and South Sudan. China, the African Development Bank and unknown Gulf firms have already reportedly expressed an interest in the mega-project.
The government wants to eventually change the whole track to the broader standard gauge to match Egypt and Kenya. One can hardly overstate the immensity of the challenge.
Workers on a locomotive which is to be refurbished for WFP at the Atbara railway workshops CREDIT: Simon Townsley/The Telegraph
The British-era train hangers in Atbara, which serve as the critical hub, currently look more like graveyards than workshops.
Scores of engineers and mechanics wearing flip-flops rush between huge piles of scrap metal and broken down carriages, constantly wiping sweat from their brows in the 46c heat.
Workers offload sugar supplies at Sudan Port CREDIT: Simon Townsley/The Telegraph
Locomotives from Germany, the US, India, and China sit idly by, covered by years of sand and grit. Most are broken beyond repair, with shattered windscreens and rusting engines.
There are about 130 locomotives in the country. However, only a handful still function. More than two decades of US sanctions mean that spare parts are hard to come by.
The engineers at the hanger say they have to buy supplies second hand from places like Romania and South Korea, often finding themselves at the wrong end of a dodgy deal.
About half of the network lies in ruins. In many places where the line is supposed to function, drivers cannot go above 10 miles an hour for fear of derailing. Thus, it can take more than a week to cross the country.
For its part, the Railways Corporation struggles to get enough fuel to move a train 300 metres or pay its workers’ salaries, meaning that staff often have to sell scrap metal to buy food.
“When I was a child, you would set your watch by the trains. They were also on time to the minute. Now, the trains leave when they want,” one worker grumbles.
The WFP has to send thousands of food shipments along Sudan’s dangerous highways, lined with burned-out, overturned lorries. Therefore, the organisation has been leading the charge on rehabilitating several sections of the railway over the last few years.
The driver of a locomotive in Port Sudan and a worker in the railway workshops at Atbara CREDIT: Simon Townsley
The Programme plans to spend tens of millions of pounds helping the Sudanese government refurbish about a hundred locomotives and wagons, fix signal systems and train new staff.
“A modernised railway transport system will become a lifeline for the food supply chain across Sudan and beyond,” says Eddie Rowe, the WFP chief in Khartoum.
“The rehabilitation of key railway lines will make the transport of life-saving food and nutrition assistance faster, cheaper, safer and more environmentally friendly. This will enable WFP to save and change lives. It’s a common-sense investment for the people of Sudan, the government and the entire region.”
Sitting in the dusty waiting room, Atbara’s station master looks out at the almost deserted platform.
Rail yards, Port Sudan CREDIT: Simon Townsley
“Before about 30 trains passed through this station every day. Now we sometimes get a few cargo trains and one passenger train to Khartoum. Other times, we get none at all,” says Abdel Rahman Idris Ahmed.
“In India, they focused on their infrastructure; they focused on their railways. But here we had the politics of self-interest. [The elites] wanted to have a fleet of trucks, so we suffered.”
“I hope Britain can invest here. It was the first country that established this great institution. Over the years, the railways played a huge role in opening up the country and opening up people’s minds,” says the station master.
“It’s not good but we are struggling to make it better.”
This article first appeared on www.telegraph.co.uk
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