Ghana revives its railways

Ghana's $21bn plan to revamp its railway network and revive its fortunes.


After decades of neglect, much of Ghana’s railway network has fallen into disuse or is in need of repair. A $21bn plan promises to expand and modernise the network.

More than 100 years ago British colonialists constructed the first railway lines in Ghana.

Linking the coastal town of Sekondi with the gold-rich enclaves of Obuasi and Tarkwa, the railway, established in 1898, was crucial to colonial ambitions for exporting natural resources.

By the mid-1920s rail lines covered large swathes of the country.

Around 80% of cocoa exports were rail transported during the period as Ghana became the world’s largest exporter of the crop, and by the 1960s it is estimated the railways transported 2m tonnes of freight and 8m passengers a year. 

Today, the sector is on its knees. Neglected by post-independence governments in favour of road travel and other facilities as the West African country developed to become a regional success story, it is estimated that less than 13% of Ghana’s original networks are operational. 

But that could be set to change as Nana Akufo-Addo becomes the latest president to champion the redevelopment of the country’s railways. 

Back on track? 

Left dormant for nearly two decades, the commuter service between Accra and the port city of Tema, a short 24km ride, re-opened in 2007.

However, it was blighted by poor maintenance and safety concerns and in 2017 it was closed for rehabiliation works following an accident that left several people injured.

In January the service re-launched with much fanfare and politicians are hopeful the revived service will be the first of many network upgrades across the country. 

“It’s 120 years since the railway was introduced into our country,” President Akufo-Addo said in December.

“It was the turning point in the establishment of our nation’s infrastructure but one of the greatest tragedies of our country, since we became independent, is that instead of building on the railway sector we inherited from the British we allowed it to go into disuse and neglected the sector.

“I am determined to revive the fortunes of the railway sector in our country.”

Since his election in 2016, Akufo-Addo has formed a dedicated department to work alongside the Ghana Railway Development Authority (GRDA).

A Master Plan aims to expand and modernise the country’s rail network, with the financing needed for its six phases estimated to top $21bn.

The 330km Eastern Rail Project is a cornerstone of the plan.

Costs are estimated at $1.3bn for the construction of the main line alone, and in late January the GRDA said six bids – believed to be from companies in China, Germany, the US and France – were being considered.  

Joe Ghartey, the minister for railways development, said at the January re-launch: “I am convinced beyond reasonable doubt, that in the same way that the railway when it was introduced in 1898 in Sekondi transformed the economy of the then Gold Coast… within 20-30 years time this economy of ours will transform from a middle-income country into a first world country.”   

Growth potential 

The Ghanaian economy has rebounded in recent years.

After suffering from the global commodities downturn in 2015, growth levels topped 8% in 2017 – more than double the year before – while government debt decreased by 4% over the 12 months to 69.2% at the end of 2017. 

However youth unemployment remains a concern and it is hoped that reviving the railways will create jobs, and facilitate trade and commerce. 

“Clearly there is a need that can be filled by the train service,” says Nicholas de-Heer, head of programmes at the Institute for Fiscal Studies in Accra.

“Theoretically it is going to enhance trade, benefit the economy in the long run and perhaps reduce the numbers of people travelling by road.” 

One area de-Heer believes could be improved is that of food waste.

Income losses from harvests are high due to transport costs and the inability of many farmers to store produce. A strong rail network could potentially reduce such losses. 

 “If it is going to convey foodstuff – as we have a lot of post-harvest waste in the country and a lot of food that is produced is not able to get to the market – then it could definitely be helpful.” 

The general secretary of the Ghana Railway Workers Union, Godwill Ntarmah was enthusiastic about plans for the development.

“Workers are ready to work,” he said in January.

“All that we are urging is that these plans come into fruition for us to play our effective role so we are ready to partner the ministry, partner government and whichever stakeholders, so that we move this nation forward as far as the rail sector is concerned.”  

How fast the redevelopment comes to fruition remains to be seen as government pursues external funding.

An agreement was signed with Russia in late 2017 to support the projects, while the line from the second city of Kumasi to the north is to be backed with a China Exim Bank loan, it was reported in July 2018.   

The November 2018 budget was set at C73.4bn ($14bn) and over $2bn of that was ring-fenced for infrastructure projects, including rail and road redevelopments, representing 21.3% of GDP.

And while the benefits could be many, de-Heer says the government is burdened by several expensive projects already.

He is sceptical about how the rail plans will be paid for.

 When looking across the continent it is clear that poorly planned projects can be mired in inefficiency and mismanagement.  

In Ethiopia, Chinese funding for the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway and the Addis Ababa city service was critical.

Yet allegations of corruption stalked the projects, and the Ethiopian government had to ask China to restructure its debt repayments to balance the books on the $4bn Djibouti line.

Whether Ghana can avoid those pitfalls remains to be seen.  

Chris Matthews

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