DR Congo's rail revamp backed by China and World Bank

Commuters crowd on a train at the central Kinshasa railway station (Archive photo 2000)
Image caption DR Congo is the size of western Europe and much of its rail track was laid more than 100 years ago

A $600m (£368m) project to revamp the Democratic Republic of Congo's decrepit railway network within four years has been launched in the capital, Kinshasa.

The World Bank and China are the principal backers of the scheme.

The aim is to restore services to provinces where rail is the only connection to the rest of the world in the absence of roads or rivers.

The 3,000km (1,100 mile) colonial-era rail network has had little maintenance after years of misrule and conflict.

'Minerals for infrastructure'

The BBC's Thomas Hubert in Kinshasa says about 700km of track will have to be repaired or replaced and dozens of new locomotives and wagons purchased.

Equipment is only part of the bill: DR Congo's nation railway company SNCC is also mired in financial problems, he says.

It has some 12,000 employees who have not been paid for more than four years.

Under the plan, by the end of June 2,200 employees - many of whom are long past retirement age - will be given the option to retire after the company finally pays their salaries and pension contributions.

Pierre Pozzo di Borgo, the World Bank's African transport specialist, says a working train system will open up the centre of the country and allow it to develop.

"In the province of Maniema, the price of a bag of cement is roughly $35. It's less than $10 in Kinshasa," he said at the launch.

"If the train stops working, it goes through the roof. If the train starts being reliable, the price drops by two-thirds."

But Mr Pozzo di Borgo warned that putting SNCC back afloat for good will take 20 years and $1.5bn.

The World Bank, which is putting $218.8m towards this four-year project, is hoping for investment from international mining companies operating in southern copper-rich Katanga region, which mainly ship their produce out by road through countries to the south.

"We're happy if the mining companies can benefit from this and move their produce more quickly," Reuters news agency quotes Mines Minister Martin Kabwelulu as saying.

Equally, in many parts of eastern DR Congo, more goods on sale have arrived through neighbouring countries than from far-away Kinshasa.

China's $200m contribution will be drawn from the "minerals-for-infrastructure" deal signed between Beijing and Kinshasa in 2009.

The remaining money for the $600m project will come from the Congolese government, and will include tax breaks for Vecturis, the Belgian company tasked with sorting out the management of SNCC.

There are no roads across this country the size of Western Europe.

For those who cannot afford to fly, river transport is the only option but safety regulations are routinely flouted and accidents claiming more than 100 lives are fairly common.

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