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Ghana bets on rejuvenated railways for growth
AS Ghana's urban landscape gently slides by the train window, Shaibu Amoah swells with pride. The 37-year-old has been helping to renovate railway lines in Accra since June, clearing debris and shovelling ballast in the hot sun.
When the short line from Accra to the port of Tema finally reopened in January, Mr Amoah was on the first public run. "I am feeling proud of my work because I am helping my country to move ahead," he told AFP as the train eased out of the capital.
The head of the Ghana Railway Development Authority, Richard Diedong Dombo, said the transport sector was crucial for the country's development, pointing to railways as historic "engines of growth".
President Nana Akufo-Addo established the railways development ministry in 2017 to restore existing lines dating back to British colonial rule - and build new ones.
Ghana's railway network comprises three lines with some branch extensions, totalling 940 kilometres of track. Only about a sixth of this is actually in use, and much of the rolling stock is out of date or in disrepair. Even though the section between Tema and Accra has been renovated, the 30-km trip takes an hour and a half.
But under a 2013 "Master Plan", the country aims to have 4,000 km of track by 2048. It would connect Accra with Sekondi-Takoradi in the south-west to the central city of Kumasi, and to Tamale in the north, and link Tema to Burkina Faso, Ghana's northern neighbour - a 1,200-km endeavour in itself.
The total cost is estimated at about US$21.5 billion. That's a big ask for any country, let alone a developing country in sub-Saharan Africa, and the authorities say they are cautiously taking a phased approach in the project, based on funding.
Mr Dombo said "a mixed bag" of financing, including local sources, was helping with rehabilitation work, but foreign firms were likelier to build new lines, which are far more costly.
No contracts have been awarded for new lines, but China and Chinese companies seem more interested in investing in infrastructure in Ghana than those in the West, he said.
In December, Akufo-Addo termed neglect of the railway infrastructure one of Ghana's "greatest tragedies" since independence in 1957.
The Accra-Tema line was shut down in 2017 following a derailment. With service now restored, carriages painted in the national colours of red, yellow and green rolled along the renovated line, though people squatted close to the tracks and onlookers did a double-take as the train passed.
The line connects diverse communities that comprise Ghana's capital, passing shanty towns and glitzy apartment blocks, new suburbs, a polo club and mosque, vegetable gardens, the expanding port and the seafront.
Each train can carry 600 people at a cost of just five cedis (S$1.24) one way.
Grace Amihere, 38, a hostess on the line, remembers taking trains when she was younger. "People will patronise it because it's less costly," she forecast. "The view is nice, the buildings. . . You can see the sea when you get to the harbour. It's quite interesting."
Mr Dombo said that in the past, the railways had become a "dead sector". Infrastructure had been neglected because railways were previously part of the transport ministry, whose budget failed to cover maintenance or building new lines, he said.
Train driver supervisor Kofi Asare, 52, is a more-than-20-year veteran of Ghana's railways. While he was pleased with the renewed focus on railways, he was concerned about whether the support would be sustained. In his long experience, he said, he had seen an "off and on" approach to the railways - during "off" periods, this often meant months without pay.
"It's a matter of sustainability - they have done it, so are they going to continue to maintain it?" he asked. "Railways are cash-strapped . . . so if the government does not come to our aid we will be struggling in five or 10 years" once more, he said.
Mr Asare remembered a well-managed rail sector as he grew up in Ghana and said that was the case until about 2002, when maintenance faltered. He and others who have dedicated their working lives to the railways are now just hoping for the best. "We are still putting our faith high, our hope and expectations. We are expecting things will go well," he said. AFP