While road transport has been the dominant mode for the movement of people and goods since the mid-1900s, railways are now staging a global comeback, illustrated by growth in the total length of rail tracks and overall rail traffic units per year (passenger-km and tonne-km) [1
]. Among the various reasons for their renaissance are the concerns over the significant social, economic, and environmental externalities created by the transport sector. Global greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector have more than doubled since 1971, and over three quarters of this increase has come from road vehicles [2
]. Rail transport is potentially more environmentally friendly than its road counterpart in terms of energy consumption and emissions per traffic unit. Railways are costly to build and maintain but can produce significantly lower external costs than other modes of transport, particularly when carrying freight.
Either powered by diesel or electricity, the railways can reduce external costs of transport by at least 47.5% per passenger-km, and 75.4% per tonne-km when compared to road modes (see Figure 1
]. The biggest savings are found in environmental impacts, such as air pollution and climate change. Rail freight produces between 75% and 85% less greenhouse gas emissions per transport unit when compared to articulated trucks, monetizing its benefit at around 0.1–0.4 cents per net tonne-km [4
The compound annual growth of rail freight transport has been positive around the world in the last three decades [4
]. For passenger services, the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) has varied across different continents, as shown in Figure 2
. However, the inferior performance of most low-income countries in both passenger and freight transport is evident. As a whole, with few exceptions, low-income countries have experienced low growth in freight transport and a drop in the passenger railway market. The graph for the South Asia region does not illustrate the situation in its low-income countries because the growth in traffic units has happened mostly in India (which is not considered a low-income country by the World Bank).
The increase of road transport in low-income countries has been driven by the higher costs of rail operations, maintenance, and renewals, and a lack of strategic planning resulting from political instability and conflicts [3
]. In Africa, road transport is responsible for 90% of passenger traffic and 80% of the movement of goods [5
]. Railways require dedicated corporations to operate passenger and freight services. The centralised costs for maintaining and upgrading capital assets create the impression that the railways are too costly to compete with road transport, but rail is considerably cheaper when economies of scale are possible [4
Despite the financial constraints, many low-income countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have followed through and started prioritizing railway infrastructure in their plans for the upcoming decades. The current moment seems appropriate, as most low-income countries are experiencing higher economic growth than the global average, leading to promising prospects [6
]. When this growth is combined with an emerging middle class and untapped resources, it is clear that the potential for railway development is timely [6
]. In line with this, the African Union has published a vision of a continent-wide rail network to facilitate inter- and intra-regional trade and meet the travel needs of its growing population [7
]. In South Asian countries, future goals for railway development are of a similar scale.
Therefore, there seems to exist important gaps between the current status of rail infrastructure, the common vision of regional development, and short-term projects in implementation. While investment in rail infrastructure is seen as an essential feature for the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals, projects need to be chosen carefully, especially in financially constrained countries [5
This research reviewed the literature on the current state of rail infrastructure to identify development areas that have the greatest potential for increasing future affordability and sustainability of railways in low-income countries (LICs) in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Findings were also derived from a workshop conducted in Nairobi, Kenya, in November 2018, with key stakeholders from Sub-Saharan African countries.
The review looked at data available from primary and secondary sources. Extensive databases held by organisations such as the World Bank and the International Union of Railways (UIC) were used as the main sources. Secondary sources were reports that provided supporting information [10
]. The availability, age, and robustness of databases found posed a challenge to the systematic process. In South Asia, more up-to-date information was available through reports from governments and international agencies [11
Due to the significant differences in use of rail infrastructure between Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the process of data collection adopted two separate fronts. Breadth of scope was prioritised in this review in order to provide a comprehensive understanding of key areas needing development. Under each front, themes were defined where data was available for both regions. Subsequently, each sub-theme and the list indicators for infrastructure condition and operational performance were defined according to the information available. The process is illustrated in Figure 4
Information on rail infrastructure and performance in low-income countries was found to be generally fractured and outdated, in accordance with previous works [3
]. Large discrepancies were found among sources. It was found that the most comprehensive database where indicators are available for most countries analysed stopped being updated between 2005 and 2008 [1
]. More recent information, where available, was used to calibrate the reliability of sources [11
]. Some countries listed infrastructure indicators until 2011, with one listing indicators until 2017 (Democratic Republic of the Congo). In the twelve years separating the data for DRC, no significant changes in indicators were found.
5. Recent Sino-African and Sino-Asian Projects
The review of rail infrastructure and operations in low-income countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia has highlighted the disparity between the current conditions and national and regional visions for the future. With financial challenges in working towards these goals, various low-income countries have recently signed resource-for-infrastructure agreements, mostly with China, to replace dilapidated infrastructure with new lines using modern technologies [16
]. From the literature, Sino-African projects exceed those found in South Asia. This may be explained by the large investments from the ADB in the region to develop a Trans-Asian Railway network [26
]. Conversely, projects in Sub-Saharan Africa seem to be conducted on an ad hoc basis.
Since its beginning in 2006, Sino-African trade volumes grew rapidly to reach more than US$
200 billion in 2013 [16
]. These resource-for-infrastructure investments include several railway projects across the continent, with some examples listed in Table 4
. Most projects consist of single track, non-electrified, standard gauge lines [18
]. Lines are built with freight and passenger services in mind and permit an average maximum speed between 100 km/h and 120 km/h [18
]. There are exceptions to these standards: (1) the Addis Ababa–Djibouti line, which is electrified and includes 151 km of double tracks; (2) the Mali–Senegal line, which is a renovation of the existing infrastructure; and (3) the Abuja–Kaduna section of the Lagos–Kano line, which is double-track and will permit speeds of up to 250 km/h [30
In South Asia, such projects are not as numerous. In Bangladesh, work has started on the Padma Bridge Rail Link, a 225 km project connecting regions to the port of Payra, at a total cost of the project expected to be US$
3.14 billion with a loan of 80% of the amount [31
]. Pakistan signed with China a US$
8.2 billion overall investment in railways in Pakistan, including the renewal of broad-gauge tracks and the acquisition of rolling stock. It has since, however, been reduced by US$
2 billion due to concerns over the costs of the loans [32
At a first glimpse, these projects are reshaping the capacity of existing routes. For instance, the line connecting Addis Ababa to Djibouti has reduced the journey time between Djibouti and the dry port of Mojo in Ethiopia from 84 h to 10–15 h [21
]. Similarly, the Standard Gauge Railway has reduced journey times between the port of Mombasa and the capital Nairobi to less than 5 h. In Nigeria, these projects are expected to provide a long-awaited expansion to reduce congestion on the country’s damaged roads [33
However, there is significant concern over the sustainability of these projects. From an economic perspective, concern is increasing that these large loans will tie low-income countries to a long-term dependency on China rather than promoting internal development [16
]. These concerns have some support in the case of Sri Lanka, which handed over control of one of its deep-sea ports to ease its debt with China [34
]. Moreover, the cost-effectiveness of such large-scale projects has been questioned. For instance, the Mombasa-Nairobi line in Kenya is reported to have cost close to three times the international standard and four times the original estimate [35
From a technical standpoint, systems have been developed only within the national context, with little attention to compatibility and standardisation [6
]. Rahmatullah [36
] adds that regional rail use is likely to be constrained by differences in track gauge, track structure, signaling systems, and incompatible rolling stock. Delelegn [21
] highlighted that lines within Ethiopia run on different signaling systems because they were built by different companies. Stakeholders at the Nairobi workshop shared similar concerns about the link between new rail infrastructure and wider development regional plans, where projects are not standardised with regard to maximum axle loads and speeds, and control and communication systems to be used in different sections. It was also highlighted that national masterplans were not available and very few documents were digitalised for common access.
Moreover, it seems that recent investments are not entirely aligned with the current gaps in capability. Technical decisions on new projects are being driven by external forces, including international suppliers and foreign governments, rather than following regional plans with a holistic perspective. This has resulted in investments in solutions that do not match the requirements of the specific context and development trajectory of low-income countries. For example, electrification is still not possible in many countries, as the national electricity grids are insufficient to support railway operations. When electrified lines were built in Ethiopia, a new grid had to be added to the project [21
]. Furthermore, expensive and highly sophisticated complex systems have been specified where they are not required, as in the example of the deployment of advanced ERTMS Level 3 (European Rail Traffic Management System Level 3) technologies in Zambia, where traffic volumes are less than 1.5 million traffic units per year [37
There are clear discrepancies in future goals and current actions. Since there is no established technology roadmap to lead national development towards a common goal, countries are buying off-the-shelf technologies that are too expensive for the near future traffic projected. In doing so, their pathway to development is likely to only follow the steps of developed countries decades ago and remain outdated in the long-term. Little attention has been given to the specific context of the regions and their needs for fit-for-purpose solutions that can leapfrog previous development curves and create fit-for-purpose solutions.
If these problems are left unaddressed, there is significant potential for scarcely available money to be wasted, and for new railway systems to underperform and lose money. Such an outcome is likely to slow the rate of development of railways in low-income countries and lead to less efficient and more environmentally damaging solutions being deployed in the future.
Therefore, it is imperative that scarcely available investments are made consistently and coherently in order to follow a pathway towards continental future goals. Experience in developed regions shows that technical strategies are important studies that can identify common capabilities and produce context-specific and fit-for-purpose technology roadmaps that connect future visions to current levels of development.
6. Technical Strategies in Europe
In 1995, the European Union had a similar vision to restructure the rail transport market and strengthen the position of the rail industry in relation to other transport modes [38
]. Infrastructure at that point was in a much better condition than currently found in LICs in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, yet there was a need for harmonised development to fulfil the goals of a continent-wide network. This implied opening-up of the rail transport market to competition, improving interoperability and safety of national networks, as well as developing better rail infrastructure [36
]. These three main areas—crucial to the development of a strong and competitive rail transport industry—are no different from what is required to enable low-income countries to provide an efficient, reliable, and safe alternative mode of transport for its citizens.
To achieve these goals, the European Union started developing technical strategies to connect future visions to tangible development programs. The first edition was published in 2008 with the purpose of “foreseeing the kind of railway that the rail industry is capable of supplying in response to European and national needs and affordability criteria, to assess whether this railway can be delivered through ‘natural’ incremental change mechanisms, or whether some planned strategic changes are required” [39
Technical strategies are roadmaps to connect the present state to the future goals of systems because the gaps between both are usually of considerable magnitude. In this, the complex context and the uncertainty that surrounds development require coordinated actions to achieve a common goal. Moreover, technical strategies are incremental, as new versions build on achievements of the previous plans.
For instance, the technical strategy in 2008 focused on interoperability and efficient and border-free acceptance [39
]. Ten years later, the 2019 version of the European Technical Strategy envisioned further advancements, such as demand-responsive services, low-carbon solutions, and greater safety than any other transport mode [40
The jump in capabilities illustrates the active role that technical strategies can have in linking outputs and outcomes. In 2014, the European Commission established a platform for coordinating research activities in the railway sector under the name of Shift2Rail [41
]. Since then, efforts to support a Single European Railway Area have been carried out in the form of joint undertakings, where public–private partnerships conduct research and development projects. The research programs are defined by the Shift2Rail commission, in the face of the overarching regional goals of the European Commission, as well as the recent technological developments in the various transport sectors. This combination of top-down and bottom-up perspective ensures that local capability is improved in accordance with regional visions.
In the United Kingdom, similar work has been carried out with the Railway Technical Strategy (RTS). The RTS aims to support strategic planning processes of railways while guiding stakeholders on the deployment of technologies to steer the future of the railway industry’s technical direction. The strategy’s time frame is 30 years, balancing between the lifespan of rolling stock, which ranges from between 25 and 40 years, and stations’ and assets’ lifespans of 100 years or more. The RTS has six main themes, namely control, command and communication; energy; infrastructure; rolling stock; information; and customer experience. These themes reflect on strategies that address technical and operational domains within the rail industry.
To connect the vision to achievable milestones, the RTS makes use of Capability Delivery Plans (CDP). These are developed for the delivery of a holistic set of key capabilities that can achieve strategic goals while ensuring a sustainable market. The first edition in 2012 identified the areas of development, and later iterations of the plan can build on them as the systems evolve. Visions are broken down into key capabilities to be developed, which are then transformed into key programmes to achieve them (See Figure 13
7. Developing a Technical Strategy for Low-Income Countries
As previously mentioned, there are visions of a continent-wide railway network, specifically high-speed rail, in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia to facilitate trade as well as to sustainably meet the travel needs of the growing populations. A more specific vision for the African railway sector in 2040 was published in 2013 [5
]. Its main focus is on the regeneration of railway networks, highlighting the need to consider transport networks at regional and continental levels.
This paper suggests a framework for a technical strategy to be used in the development of rail infrastructure in LICs in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia (Figure 14
). Assuming a future goal of interoperable and efficient rail networks, eight main capabilities were identified considering the current state of rail infrastructure found in the literature. These are infrastructure, signaling, interoperability, planning, standards, costs, data, and safety.
Currently, rail infrastructure in these LICs is mostly what is left from the legacy of the original networks of the 19th and 20th century, with little planning and almost no interoperability between countries. Most countries struggle with severely dilapidated infrastructure from years of negligence and poor maintenance. Traffic volumes are affected and so are the costs. Various track gauges have been found in bordering countries, challenging cross-border operations and limiting the competitiveness of railway transport with road-based modes. Some countries even operate different gauges within their own borders, creating operational difficulties that consume precious time and result in greater costs.
More important in the diagram are the intermediate milestones, which provide a systematic bridge between the current state and future goals of railway networks. It is crucial to acknowledge the incremental level of sophistication of the systems where appropriate cost-effective technologies can be implemented. Large scale projects such as railways take several years to be completed, meaning that the evolution of capabilities must be taken as a long-term process. Otherwise, localised initiatives such as those seen in Sino-African projects may become the norm, adopting unsustainable projects and unaffordable solutions for quick wins.
Based on regional documents outlining the vision for interoperable railway networks, we have established a maturity pathway for each of the capabilities. Similarly to processes conducted in Europe, they focus on outcomes and are kept “solution agnostic” in order to maintain the pool of potential technologies available. The framework also acknowledges previous and current projects of modernisation that have adopted international standards, but not in a cohesive manner.
There is a considerable gap between the desired state of rail infrastructure in 2040 and the current situation where countries are beginning to move away from legacy systems. However, there is also an advantage in the greater technological prowess available nowadays, which can help leapfrog the development path taken by high income countries. As an example, digitalisation and recent advances in traction and materials can reduce the costs of renovation, as well as achieve levels of interoperability and standardisation that have taken other countries much longer in the past.
The key outcomes of the strategy are found at the bottom of Figure 14
in the form of applied research programmes. Similarly to the European case, the role of a technical strategy for LICs is to bridge the desired capability development with applied and appropriate research programmes. The three main drivers identified in this research are: (i) data collection and capacity building; (ii) emerging railway technologies; and (iii) fit-for-purpose regional standards.
7.2. Data Collection and Capacity Building
Data was found to be a crucial capability, not only for the development of more efficient networks but also for the technical strategy itself. Many indicators of the current state of infrastructure and operational performance in low-income countries are not available. When they are, they are at least 10 years old, which renders them unreliable, especially in the context of accelerated economic growth seen in these countries. Little technical information has been found on the new projects from Sino-African and Sino-Asian agreements.
In this, data collection and capacity building become short-term priorities for the pathways of the technical strategy. However, the process must be systematic in identifying key performance indicators that can assess whether capability developments align with the future vision. Therefore, all countries in the region must agree on a list of indicators to be measured, the metrics to be used, and standard collection processes to ensure reliability in the results.
Building such capacity in data collection and benchmarking, LIC regions will become able to identify the different levels of each country and act accordingly. In addition, indicators can indicate gaps between current performance and each milestone, highlighting priority areas for research and development.
The advantage of using a technical strategy to guide data collection activities is that the type and amount of data is decided not on the current availability of the system but on the future vision of the networks. With this, when capabilities start to evolve, measures of effectiveness of past programs can be assessed, and new iterations of research and development (R&D) initiatives decided accordingly. On the other hand, this paradigm requires a high level of transparency between all countries that take part in the technical strategy. This means that efforts need to be leveled and a baseline amount of information shared.
7.3. Emerging Railway Technologies
Improved databases can then be used as a basis for the technical strategy to achieve the other two medium- and long-term outcomes. The technical strategy should use performance indicators to identify differentiated technologies that can provide technological shortcuts to achieve similar outcomes without having to follow the same path of high-income countries. It is important that the capabilities defined are solution agnostic because one of the key elements of technical strategies is the differentiation approach to rail infrastructure. This perspective suggests that a more cost-effective plan for the development of railway networks is based on differentiation at an infrastructure level as part of a wider multi-purpose strategy, where different types of operations can share some routes, while others will be largely used by a single sector.
Track renovation and renewal seem to be an early milestone to restore traffic efficiency in areas where the network has suffered most. Specific geometries, track density, and gauge must follow careful consideration of demand forecasts to differentiate international corridors from local lines. By doing so, improvements towards interoperability can start with more cost-effective routes and use appropriate technologies for each section. In the meantime, research programs can be started on solutions for moving assets and control and communication.
For instance, emerging digital signaling technologies can offer a more cost-effective transition between the current state of the infrastructure (2018) and the next milestone (2025), leapfrogging track-side equipment. One important advantage of digital technologies is the easier and more cost-effective upgrading when traffic increases in the network.
Similarly, a deeper and broader knowledge of track conditions and geometry can give way to bespoke wagon design and materials to achieve a certain performance at appropriate costs. The role of emerging railway technologies can prove crucial to accelerate and integrate the regional development of rail infrastructure in LICs in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Nonetheless, the situation encountered in those countries is one of fragmented capabilities and distinct standards. It logically follows that off-the-shelf solutions may not suffice, and that research initiatives should also look at solutions at the technology level.
7.4. Fit-for-Purpose Regional Standards
In the medium to long term, the adoption of emerging technologies in differentiated solutions can lead to agreements on regional standards. Fit-for-purpose standards can be elicited to cater for the specific operational paradigms encountered in low-development countries so that differentiated technologies can be used in a safe and reliable manner. Differentiated technologies comprise disruptive solutions that have the potential to save money (both in terms of initial cost and whole life cycle costs), while also providing greater capability, improved environmental impacts, and a better solution for customers. Adopting fit-for-purpose regional standards has the potential to create leading expertise regionally, and companies that are able to export products and expertise internationally.
In addition, having a coordinated approach to technology development creates markets for new fit-for-purpose technological solutions that consider the differentiated operating parameters in each region. Within this scenario, technical strategies such as the ones practiced in Europe help small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to access those specific regional markets.
There are challenges to be overcome. Regional standards that can foster local economies depend on collective and cohesive action between countries, and facilitated movement of products and people between borders. In addition, technical strategies usually channel funding streams centrally, requiring coordinated decisions from a central commission. These mechanisms are essential interfaces between the building blocks of the technical strategy that ensure its efficacy.
8. Conclusions and Discussion
Railways are staging a comeback around the world as governments are changing policies and strategies to address sustainable development goals. Railway transport has the potential to be more sustainable and more affordable than road transport when economies of scale are made possible. They can reduce emissions and energy consumption per traffic unit, both in passenger-km and tonne-km. However, low-income countries have been struggling to achieve this because of the current condition of their rail infrastructure. In most cases, tracks have been poorly maintained for decades, and little investment has been made to improve signaling systems and rolling stock technologies. As a result, most low-income countries analysed in this research produce low traffic densities as a measure of traffic units per kilometer of rail lines. With that, the operational costs per traffic unit becomes higher than in other parts of the world and reduces the competitiveness of rail against road transport.
This paper conducted a review on the current condition of infrastructure and operational performance of railways in low-income countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. A total of 23 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and 4 countries in South Asia were included in the study. Reliable datasets were found to be mostly outdated, and recent available data is fragmented. The review of the current state of the infrastructure confirms the general perception of the regions—assets dating back to colonial periods with little improvement since, and single-track routes with manual signaling systems limit the capacity of lines.
Despite the financial constraints, low-income countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are following through and agreeing to various resource-for-infrastructure loans to build new lines to replace severely dilapidated existing networks. These plans seem to go in an opposite direction to a shared vision of continent-wide efficient rail networks that can provide a competitive alternative to road transport. Firstly, most of the lines planned have been driven by international suppliers’ preferences and the financing available rather than as part of a coherent and coordinated development plan. As a result, some of the new lines suffer from the same interoperability issues as the original infrastructure from the beginning of the last century. Secondly, there have been concerns over the financial sustainability of these projects. They have been deployed with little consideration of specific requirements of the lines, resulting in technologies used in high-capacity networks being applied to the low traffic volumes currently found in the regions.
Further research is necessary to put such a technical strategy into practice:
As a starting point, data is a crucial aspect for a successful development of a technical strategy. There is very little data concerning the current state of railway infrastructure and the operational performance achieved. It is important that the current condition of assets and current performance levels are known so that specific technology roadmaps can be traced.
Specific research on emerging technologies that can provide cost-effective and more sustainable solutions for the specific operational context of low-income countries. Off-the-shelf technologies in use in countries with high volumes of traffic can be too costly and unsustainable in the long run. These include new traction solutions (e.g., hydrogen) that can bypass the need for expensive electrified networks, cost-effective materials for tracks and rolling stock, digitalised train-based signaling systems, etc.
A final part of the technical strategy relates to standards. In order to achieve efficient, interoperable, continent-wide rail networks, low-income regions need to ensure that the technologies adopted are standardised. If not, that they are at least compatible with cross-border operations. With the research on the use of emerging technologies for context-specific solutions, research should also develop fit-for-purpose regional standards in accordance with future visions. In addition, the creation of standards that are lacking in many LICs can promote improved operational performance, especially concerning safety.
Therefore, this paper suggests that low-income countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia need to develop a technical strategy to coordinate localised development towards a common goal in order to achieve their visions. Technical strategies used in high-income countries are used as a baseline to define key processes in developing a counterpart for low-development countries so that they can find technological shortcuts rather than just follow the previous development paths of high-income regions. A framework for a technical strategy for LICs in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia was presented, in which eight capabilities were identified for priority. In addition, the framework proposes a structured mechanism to transform the three main areas of further research into practice and achieve the milestones elicited.
Future work should initially scan the current condition and performance of rail infrastructure in LICs in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia to update and equalise databases. Subsequently, once the local and regional gaps are identified, research programs can be devised in order to address the building blocks suggested. Using emerging technologies and adopting fit-for-purpose standards will facilitate these regions to achieve their capability milestones and achieve their future visions more efficiently.