Waiting in vain for a train in DR Congo

By Julian Keane
BBC World Service, Lubumbashi

image captionTravellers in DR Congo are used to long delays, sometimes waiting days

Alexandre Mapokopero is proud to work for SNCC, the national railway of the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the last time he actually mounted a train was back in June.

As chief train attendant in the southern city of Lubumbashi, his job is to attend to passengers' every need while they are travelling.

He turns up for work every day but there is no work to go to because so few of the country's trains are actually running.

Mr Mapokopero complains that he is owed more than 60 months' back-pay.

"I can't afford to resign," he says, hoping that one day, the company will resume payments.

"I'm scared that if I quit I may lose all my benefits, including my pension."

'A big mess'

Ahead of next week's elections, the state of the rail network reveals all one needs to know about the vast country's problems, past and present.

Originally designed to meet the transport demands of the mineral companies, it is still failing to meet the needs of ordinary Congolese.

Like much in DR Congo, it is old, run-down, badly managed and in desperate need of an overhaul.

"There is a big mess in the Congolese rail system," says Mbuyu Kikidji, who used to run the national rail company.

"First of all the rail system is very old. The management is also old. And the equipment is old," he says.

"And there's not a proper vision to where this railroad is going."

Inside DR Congo
size map
The Democratic Republic of Congo covers 2,344,858 square km of land in the centre of Africa, making it the 12th largest country in the world.
size map
Eastern DR Congo is awash with a variety of different rebel groups – some have come from neighbouring countries, while others have formed as self-defence groups. Many are taking advantage of the lack of a strong state to seize control of the area's mineral riches.
mineral wealth map
DR Congo has abundant mineral wealth. It has more than 70% of the world's coltan, used to make vital components of mobile phones, 30% of the planet's diamond reserves and vast deposits of cobalt, copper and bauxite. This wealth however has attracted looters and fuelled the country's civil war.
transport map
Despite the country's size, transport infrastructure is very poor. Of 153,497km of roads, only 2,794km are paved. There are around 4,000 km of railways but much is narrow-gauge track and in poor condition. Waterways are vital to transport goods but journeys can take months to complete. Overcrowded boats frequently capsize, while DR Congo has more plane crashes than any other country.
population map
With an estimated population of 71 million, DR Congo is the fourth most populous country in Africa. Some 35% of the population live in cities and the capital Kinshasa is by far the largest, with more than 8 million inhabitants. DR Congo has around 200 ethnic identities with the majority of people belonging to the Kongo, Luba and Mongo groups.
demographic map
Given its size and resources DR Congo should be a prosperous country, but years of war, corruption and economic mismanagement have left it desperately poor. In 2011 it lags far behind in many key development indicators, with average life expectancy increasing by only 2 years since 1980, after a period when it actually fell during the mid 1990s.

He adds: "I wouldn't take Congolese trains today."

His fears are borne out by the network's safety record.

There are hundreds of derailments every year - more than a third of the 3,641km (2,262 miles) of track is more than 60 years old.

There are plans for the World Bank to fund a big rail modernisation programme.

But for passengers like Kalema Kongo, waiting at Lubumbashi's main railway station, there seems little sign of change.

She was hoping to travel to see her family, who live about 800km (500 miles) from Lubumbashi, in Kilagi.

She was due to take the "diamant deluxe", a special train which is supposed to be faster as it stops at fewer stations.

But once again it has not turned up.

Ms Kongo has been told that it has been delayed by 24 hours.

"Even if it does leave, you never know when it will arrive," she says.

"A journey which normally takes me three days, can take as much as a week, or even more. "

image captionMarcel Mulongo works for the in-house rail magazine that has not been published for nine months

Resigned to her fate, she adds: "It's always like this, but what can I do?

"I haven't got enough money to buy a plane ticket."

The country, which is two-thirds the size of western Europe, has only a few hundred kilometres of tarmac roads outside the main cities, meaning that travelling by bus is not really an option.

"I can't walk all the way, I have no choice but to wait and sleep here at the station," Ms Kongo says.

Empty promises

For the staff of the national rail company's in-house magazine, Njanja, there is not a lot to report - with not a locomotive in sight.

Njanja is a quarterly publication - the last edition came out nine months ago.

image captionLubumbashi's first locomotive is plastered with election campaign posters

Photo-journalist Marcel Mulongo explains that like the railway - and the country - the magazine he works for is having "financial problems".

But in his office at the station, standing in front of a faded map of the network, which is so old it dates back to the era of Mobutu Sese Seko, when DR Congo was called Zaire, he says he is still hopeful that the "diamante deluxe" will turn up tomorrow.

As some passengers leave the station ready to return the following day, they walk past a reminder of days gone by: An old blue and yellow locomotive, the first one to roll on DR Congo's tracks.

It is now the centrepiece of a roundabout, just a few hundred yards from the railway line.

This symbol of the country's past has now become a billboard for the future. The locomotive is covered with election posters for candidates running for parliament.

They are all promising a brighter future for the DR Congo.

Chief train attendant Alexandre Mapokopero is not so confident.

"We have no locomotives, no carriages," he says.

"All we have are empty promises from the government."

Julian Keane is reporting from the Democratic Republic of Congo for the BBC World Service all week. Listen to more of his reports on The World Today.

Around the BBC

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.