West African countries set date for work on key rail line

Rail line

Work to rehabilitate a 1,260-kilometre (782-mile) railway that is a vital link between the Sahel and Atlantic coast will begin on September 15, the governments of Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast said Tuesday.

The two governments, along with the track’s operating company Sitarail, signed an agreement setting the date at a meeting in the Burkinabe capital.

Under a deal reached with Sitarail’s parent company, the French group Bollore, €400m ($462m) will be committed to modernising the route, Burkina Faso’s Foreign Minister Alpha Barry said.

The first phase, costing €130m, will last four years, Barry said, without giving a completion date for the overall project.

“The work will start on September 15, there will also be orders for new material, new locomotives,” said Eric Melet, chief executive for development at Bollore Transport and Logistics.

“It will go ahead very quickly.”

The unelectrified single-line track traces its origins back to the late 19th century when France was looking for ways to link the colonised Sahel to its trading posts on the Atlantic.

After many interruptions, the line began operation in 1954. After an economic crisis in the 1990s, management of the railways was handed to Sitarail.

The line plays a key role for landlocked Burkina Faso in transporting cotton and manganese exports to the coast, and in importing oil, cement and fertiliser.

But it suffers from poor track and ageing rolling stock, limiting train speed.

Rehabilitation of the line had been announced in September 2015 but work did not advance.

In September 2016, all traffic was stopped for two weeks after a bridge on the Ivorian side collapsed as a goods train was passing over, although without causing casualties.

“Economic growth between Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast is dynamic and there are lots of goods which have to be transported by rail,” Melet said.

By rehabilitating the northern branch of the line to the mining town of Kaya, 100 kilometres north of Ouagadougou, “a million tonnes of minerals could be transported over the next four years,” he said.

Bollore has a 67 percent stake in Sitarail, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast each have 15 percent, and the remaining three percent is owned by the workforce.