British colonial heritage and modern railway development in Africa
by Gabor Gyurko,
'Few countries have ever industrialised […] in which entrepreneurs have been unable to corrupt the state, exploiting taxpayers and consumers far beyond the limits set by proper tolerance […]’
(Clive Dewey on imperial Britain’s ‘new industrial policy’)
Beyond military power and economic might, roads have shaped the outreach of empires throughout human history. Royal highways helped cement the rule of the Achaemenid dynasty over the Persian Empire.
Roman roads aided legions of the Eternal City in their conquest of the known world.
An epoch of trail network development steered the rise of Inca rule in Latin America.
It was Victorian Britain to pick up the mantle and recommence expanding the global transport infrastructure, with a more modern tool that time – railways. However, as regions and manufacturing production were part of a hierarchy, networks were constructed asymmetrically as well. Above all else, they were organized such that overseas resources would be supplied at the lowest cost for domestic British manufacturing. In Australia, they link the ‘wool-towns’ with the port of Sidney, the Northwestern coalmines with Newcastle harbor since the 1830s. They ship cotton across the British Raj of the Indian subcontinent from the mid-19th century.
With this single purpose in mind, a plethora of private enterprises and joint ventures entered the railway construction industry to capture profits from transportation fees. In this respect, trunk lines were simply part of individual supply chains, not only not serving integration, but essentially blocking it through limiting differentiated local economic development. Spread out ownership also resulted in major technical discrepancies, which hindered network unifications once lines began overlapping. For instance, in both Australia and India three gauges were in use, none of which matched the then-evolving European standard. Furthermore, with the demise of the colonial world and production processes under realignment, newly independent states were left with assets abandoned by their owners, and the daunting task of reform.
Although a decline in the cost of trade is the most explicit consequence of transport expansion, a well-integrated network also serves as a tool of convergence, both in prices and in incomes. This makes it crucial for a country to have infrastructure in place that services domestic needs. Illustrative studies are abundant for the British Raj, with mixed results in case of prices and marginal to none for incomes. Scholars note that this failure was exacerbated in times of famine, when price inflations and trade from surplus regions helped spread hunger, instead of relieving it.
‘Colonial rule in Africa was intended to be cheap, viz. for taxpayers in Europe.’
(Gareth Austin on the motivation of colonial powers)
While political and social forces would organize over time across most major British domains, inducing more inclusive developments and improving the character of the national infrastructure greatly, such pressures were lacking in Africa at large. The geographical partition of the continent caused a deep political divide across neighboring countries.
Power-hungry European sovereigns – especially Britain, France and Germany – utilized colonial transport networks as means of military defense against each other, and as instruments of dominance and exploitation over the African territories. Political will dictated the choice of railway over paved road construction as well, as freight was less costly and more secure via trunk lines. Furthermore, given the low density of population and economic activity of the continent and long distances between major centers, there was little room left for regional integration.
Past 50 years of independence there is little change in the transport structure of newly-formed states. Road density is still extremely low even in comparison with other developing countries. The railroad network is in similarly dire straits, with very limited new construction since the 1950s across the Sub-Saharan region. Expansions have been limited to the Southern countries, while other lines were either scrapped or abandoned over the years as they are either too dangerous or no longer viable technologically. Furthermore, as linkages between colonial conglomerates and their overseas affiliates began to realign, many lines have lost their relevance altogether.
The rule of thumb in infrastructural investments is that it creates spillovers and hence increases overall efficiency even if it is itself loss-making via the decline in transportation costs for both freight and passengers. However, calculations suggest that as markets are unsaturated, construction and maintenance of trunk lines is self-financing – yet, concessions still number in single digits. In a globalizing economy, national borders and interest become secondary to integration and the composite performance of regions. In the lack of price and income equalization, the produce of especially landlocked and ‘monocultural’ countries remains uncompetitive, while their populations suffer greatly from their inability to access global markets. Proposed developments clearly seek to further the international unification process that is increasingly prevalent in contemporary African politics.
Perhaps, infrastructural expansion can lead to the rise of an economically and politically more stable, and socially more equitable Africa for the 21st century.
Quote by Clive Dewey is from this article.
Quote by Gareth Austin is from this article.
An extensive review of Australian colonial railways is available via this website.
A brief summary of Indian railway development is available here, with specific analysis of famines in this article.
A good summary of colonial heritage in African railroads is presented here, with policy recommendations found here, and in extensive detail here.
Illustrative brief on road networks in Africa is available here.