In Senegal, the long-awaited rebirth of the Dakar-Tambacounda train

Sitting in the shade in front of his restaurant, Dior Amar overcomes boredom by looking nostalgically at the deserted rails. Once upon a time, travelers and traders stopped to eat thiep, thiéré or chicken sandwiches in his stall ideally located next to Tambacounda station, in eastern Senegal. “The whole economy of the city revolved around the train, grumbles the restaurateur who has been in business for thirty-five years. But since its shutdown in 2018, I have been bankrupt, I hardly have any more clients. “

Inaugurated in 1924, the colonial road which ran between Dakar and Bamako declined slowly for lack of maintenance. Privatized in 2003, taken over by the authorities of Senegal and Mali with the creation of the two-state Dakar Bamako Ferroviaire structure in 2016, the line could finally resume service in the months to come if the projects launched on the Senegalese side are successful.

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Kibily Touré, director general of the new national company of the Railways of Senegal, wants to believe it. To ensure minimum traffic on the old line, a rehabilitation project of 20 billion CFA francs (30.5 million euros) is being deployed. Objective: to allow trains to run twice a day between Dakar and Tambacounda from December. “We have already rebuilt the Touba Zam-Zam bridge, which was the largest structure to be rehabilitated”, welcomes Kibily Touré. And six new locomotives should be available soon.

“An issue of national cohesion”

There is an urgent need to decongest the Senegalese capital, while 3 to 4 million tonnes of goods circulate by truck between Mali and the autonomous port of Dakar each year. “There is also an issue of national cohesion, because it is a factor of opening up, land use planning and economic opportunities with the sub-region”, specifies Kibily Touré.

But the manager’s optimism about the progress of the project is far from unanimous. “It’s a big job, because the infrastructure has been at a standstill for three years. Efforts must be made now if we want to meet the deadlines ”, warns Mambaye Tounkara, general secretary of the Sutrail union. More skeptical, some point out that more than two years after its inauguration, the regional express train supposed to link the central station of Dakar and the new town of Diamniadio, then in a second step the new Blaise-Diagne airport, is still not running.

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In Tambacounda, we expect more than we hope. A few employees still live and work in the old railway buildings dating from colonial times. Seydou Keïta, 43, is a maintenance and repair agent for the railway. Even though the activity is practically at a standstill, he goes to the office every day.

“We also travel to the field to monitor infrastructure. But we earn less money because we no longer benefit from overtime or weekends which allowed us to make ends meet ”, regrets the railway worker, who explains spending a large part of his salary in the purchase of fuel to make the daily journey of 30 km which separates his village from the locals.

Towards a sub-regional logistics hub

More broadly, the entire logistics chain has been disrupted by the decline of the train. Due to a lack of freight, the road between Dakar and the Malian border is today congested by 300 to 400 trucks which leave the Senegalese port every day to join the other countries of the sub-region. A road flow that is far too dense for the current infrastructures, underlines Modou Kayéré, national coordinator of the Union of West African Drivers. “This traffic causes rapid deterioration of the roads and many accidents”, notes the trade unionist.

Relaunching the train would reduce the road trip from Dakar to Bamako by 500 km. The containers would pass by rail to Tambacounda, before continuing by road. “Road transport alone is not enough. Some materials are too heavy and difficult to transport by truck ”, continues Modou Kayéré.

The rehabilitation of the railway line is all the more important as Senegal relies on the mining sector to develop. With this in mind, another, longer-term project has been launched, supported by the Canadian government: the construction of a new line of two standard gauge tracks. Parallel to the old one and destined, in the long term, to replace it, it will run for 656 km between Dakar and Tambacounda, to which will be added 194 km of ramps to connect the main line to mining areas, Dakar ports and future ports. from Bargny-Sendou and Ndayane. “This will promote the development of the mining sector in Senegal and it is what will make the economic model profitable, because the exploitation will make it possible to repay the Canadian investment”, rejoices in advance Kibily Touré.

Beyond a new, more modern railway, the ambition is to install a real sub-regional logistics hub of 100 hectares in Tambacounda, in order to attract trade from Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Gambia, from Mali and Mauritania. In a second phase, Senegal would like to continue the railway line to Bamako, in partnership with Mali. Enough to fill Dior Amar’s little restaurant again.