Angola's railways back on track
After decades out of use, Angola's war-shattered railways are coming back to life with new trains, tracks and stations.
The first section to open fully will be the 424km (263 miles) Luanda to Malange route, taking people and freight from the capital up into Angola's agriculture-rich central north-eastern region.
Already operating a peak-hour 30km (19-mile) commuter service between central Luanda and its eastern suburbs, the trains will soon be running the full length of the railway, linking previously isolated rural communities with provincial capitals.
The fleet of diesel locomotives serving the Caminho de Ferro de Luanda (CFL; Luanda Railway) are proudly painted in the Angolan colours of red, black and yellow with a national flag attached to the door of the driver's cab.
There are 16 new stations along the line all painted in bright pinks and oranges and some with glass and steel fronts.
They cut a stark contrast to their bullet-marked colonial predecessors which stand often just metres away from the new structures, as a crumbling memory of Angola's war-torn past.
The rehabilitation of the line began in 2005 and has reportedly cost $350m (£220m). The track was laid by the China Railway Construction Company which also built the stations, importing most of its own labour to live in tented camps along the side of the railway.
One Chinese site manager told the BBC that the work has been ready for over a year but delays in payments from the Angolan government has slowed down the handover.
Angola recently admitted it had fallen into nearly $7bn (£4.5bn) of debt with foreign construction companies but has now started making repayments.
Vice Minister of Transport Jose Joao Kuvingua however denied that there had been any delay with the railway's rehabilitation and said the deadline for the line to re-open to passengers was, and still is, the end of December 2010.
Speaking to journalists invited on a trial run of the train from Luanda all the way to Malange, he said the restoration project would bring huge benefit to the communities living along the route.
"The railway is the means of transport which means big amounts of cargo can be carried with a low price, and in our point of view it will help a lot the people from the poorest areas," he said.
He added that the train was "a symbol of Angola's peace and development because without peace, it wouldn't be possible to run this train."
As the train pulled into each station and stopped to allow the vice minister and CFL officials to inspect the tracks and stations, people gathered at the platform's edge with a warm welcome.
"I feel very happy, very pleased, because it's been almost 20 years since the train passed through here," said Joaquim Miguel, a subsistence farmer who lives in the small village of Cahoca, roughly one-third of the way between Luanda and Malange.
"The people working on the land have until now not been able to get their produce from here to the city, but now with the train, we have a good thing, we are going to produce more and our community will become more developed as a result," the 29-year-old added.
In N'Daladtando, the capital of Kwanza Norte province, scores of children ran up behind the train chanting "comboio" (Portuguese for train), while their parents discussed the benefits of the railway.
"It's going to be much safer to travel by train than by minibus taxi," Joao Domingos, 36, a labourer said.
"There are too many accidents on the roads but the train will offer us an alternative."
For many, the return of the train serves as a reminder that Angola's long civil war is finally over.
"I am happy that the train is here because it means we are at peace," one lady said.
"If there wasn't peace, then there wouldn't be a train here."
Like the track and stations, the locomotives are also Chinese and there is a strange mix of English, Portuguese and Chinese signage inside the carriages which are nonetheless clean and modern with functioning toilets and a restaurant car.
There will be three different passenger classes on the Luanda to Malange service: "Primeira", with reclining leather seats with individual television sets; "Expresso" with comfortable chairs arranged in fours around tables and communal televisions; and "Tramway" the cheapest option fitted out with benches to maximise passenger numbers.
Ticket prices are yet to be announced but a CFL official told the BBC he hoped the standard fare would be less than the current price of a coach from Luanda to Malange, which is 2,500 kwanzas ($26; £17).
The CFL is the first of three train lines to come back into full service and by the end of 2012, Angola hopes to have all three fully operational again.
The Caminho de Ferro de Benguela (CFB) is the longest railway in Africa, stretching 1,344km (835 miles) from the port city of Lobito on the Atlantic coast over to the small town of Luau, on the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
There is a small stretch of track in use between Lobito and Cubal in Huambo province in use but the plan is to extend passenger services to Huambo city by early 2011.
In the very south of the country the Caminho de Ferro de Mocamedes (CFM) which goes from Namibe on the coast, through Lubango in Huila to Menongue in Kuando Kubango, is also being renovated by a Chinese company.