No, Senegal will not be the first sub-Saharan country with electric trains

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A minister and adviser to Senegal's President Macky Sall told viewers on New Year's Eve that a new train service the government is planning will be the first modern electric train in sub-Saharan Africa. The claim is wrong.

Speaking on live TV on 31 December, just moment’s after the traditional New Year’s Eve address by Senegal’s President Macky Sall, one of his ministers and advisers told viewers that a new train service the government is planning will be “the first electric train” in sub-Saharan Africa.

Referring to the long-awaited project, Benoit Sambou, told the independent Walfadjri TV-radio station: “The Regional Express Train (TER) will be the first electric train in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

It was an odd claim to make. Was the minister right? Or was he simply, as politicians often do, exaggerating the government’s performance compared to other countries on the continent?

Where is the evidence?

President Sall told the nation that the construction work on the TER project will start later this year: “The TER will serve 14 stations and will be able to transport up to 115,000 passengers per day, bringing them in less than 45 minutes from Dakar to Blaise Diagne International Airport” – 41 kilometres from Dakar.

Africa Check contacted, Sambou who reiterated the claim he had made on television. Asked for evidence he told us to speak to officials at the transport ministry.

Could the claim be correct? To know, we had just to take a look around the continent.

What about the Gautrain?

Passengers wait to get on the Gautrain, Africa's first high-speed rail line, on August 2, 2011 in Pretoria. South Africa's first high-speed train made today its first trip between economic hub Johannesburg and capital city Pretoria. Gautrain's first leg, a link between Johannesburg and OR Tambo International Airport, opened last year on June 8, three days before the city hosted the opening match of the 2010 World Cup. Gautrain, a $3.8 billion high-speed railway, can travel at speeds of 160 kilometres (100 miles) an hour, enabling commuters to make the trip from Sandton to Pretoria in 27 minutes.The same trip takes about 45 minutes by car with normal traffic, and can take two hours or more during rush hour. Local officials expect more than 100,000 passengers a day, mainly car commuters wanting to escape the region's notorious traffic. AFP PHOTO / STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP / STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN
Passengers wait to get on the Gautrain, Africa’s first high-speed rail line, in August 2011 in Pretoria, South Africa. Photo: AFP/STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN

We started in South Africa. Long before the first shovel bites the ground in Dakar on the TER project, authorities in the Gauteng province, the country’s economic heart, had completed work on a high tech electric train, known as the Gautrain.

Linking the country’s biggest city, Johannesburg, with the country’s main airport and its political capital, Pretoria, the Gautrain started operating in June 2010, just before the kick off the FIFA World Cup.

Since then, the Gautrain, which has been designed to be able to run on both electricity and regular fuel, has become a regular means of transport used by thousands of travellers and commuters every day.

What about the Addis Ababa Light Railway?

Passengers enjoy their first ride on Ethiopia's new tramway on September 20, 2015 in Addis Abada. Sub-Saharan Africa's first modern tramway opened in the Ethiopian capital on September 20, marking the completion of a massive Chinese-funded infrastructure project hailed as a major step in the country's economic development. Even before the ribbon was cut, several hundred residents were queueing for a ride on the Chinese-driven trams, which have the capacity to carry 60,000 passengers a day across the capital of Africa's second most populous nation. The two line, 34-kilometre (21 mile) system was built by the China Railway Engineering Corporation (CREC), costing $475 million, 85 percent of which has been covered by China's Exim bank. AFP PHOTO / MULUGETA AYENE / AFP / Mulugeta Ayene
Passengers enjoy their first ride on Ethiopia’s new tramway in September 2015 in Addis Abada. Photo: AFP/Mulugeta Ayene

And it is not just South Africa that is ahead of Senegal.

In September last year, authorities in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa unveiled a brand new commuter service: the Addis Ababa Light Railway. This train has its own electrical power system which is independent from the main electricity network of the country. The aim is to protect the train from power cuts that the country face regularly.

Largely funded by China, the US$470 million project is certainly an entirely electric train, and already operating. It is considered technically to be the first entirely electric train in sub-Saharan Africa.

What about elsewhere on the continent?

Looking elsewhere, Egypt was the first African country to be served by an electric train when the Cairo Metro was launched in 1987. This 69 kilometre network was used by more than three million passengers in 2011.

In Algeria, President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika launched the Algiers Metro on 31 October 2011 and the government is planning an electric metro service in the country’s second city, Oran, while tram services are either operating or under construction in more than a dozen cities.

Morocco, for its part, has more than 1,300 kilometres of electrified rail lines.

And Francophone West Africa’s largest economy, Ivory Coast, is projected to complete its own metro project in Abidjan, the economic capital, in 2019.

Conclusion: The boast about Senegal as home to the first electric train in sub-Saharan Africa is off the rails

The evidence is clear. The planned new electric train service for Dakar, referred to by a minister after the president’s New Year’s Eve address will not be sub-Saharan Africa’s first electric train.

Two sub-Saharan countries – South Africa, in 2010, and Ethiopia, in 2015 – already have operating electric trains and Ivory Coast has one in the planning stages.

It was an odd claim to make, exaggerating the government’s performance compared to the rest of Africa. Such claims should be stopped with a clear red signal.

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Comment on this report

Comments 3
  1. By Chris Hawkins

    You guys call yourselves Africa Check???

    You guys really need to further check YOUR facts!

    Electric Train Services have been operating In Sub-Saharan Africa since, at least, the 1920’s.

    South Africa

    “..Electrification of the railways began in the 1920s with the building of the Colenso Power Station for the Glencoe to Pietermaritzburg route and the introduction of the South African Class 1E.[6].”

    The old South African Railways were running Electric Locomotives in the 1920’s!

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rail_transport_in_South_Africa

    Zimbabwe

    “..The 313 km (194-mile) Gweru-Harare section is electrified at 25 kV AC.”

    The stretch between Harare and Gweru in Zimbabwe was electrified in the 1970’s.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Railways_of_Zimbabwe

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    • By Africa Check

      Thanks for your feedback, Chris. Much like the defence in a criminal trial, we simply had to point out that other electric train services existed to prove the claim is false.

      We focused on the modern kind of electric trains that the Senegalese minister-adviser was referring to. However, we will add in a line referring to the electric sections in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

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  2. By Steve Hayes

    In addition to the regular suburban and mainline trains that have been running in South Africa since the 1920s, there was also a modern high-speed train, the Metroblitz, which ran briefly in the 1980s, connecting the city centres of Johannesburg and Pretoria. It ran over the old route, via Germiston, and cook 45 minutes for the non-stop journey — half the time of the regular (electric) suburban trains. It also ran at 160 km/hour. The GautraIn was more successful because it followed a new route.

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