Rail as a key to sustainable cities in Africa

Posted in Transport Northern Africa Southern Africa Central Africa Western Africa Eastern Africa

Africa is experiencing unprecedented levels of urbanisation. By 2035 it is expected that 49% of the continent’s population will be urban-based as highlighted in the Economic Report on Africa 2017. Factors contributing to urban transition include the operation of new mines and gas and oil fields, and an increase in regional and international trade.

The rapid rate of urbanisation poses an opportunity for the continent to create inclusive and sustainable development within its borders. Rail is key to this development because effective transportation of passengers and freight is vital to sustainable cities.

Historically, rail infrastructure in Africa has been poor due to a lack of investment and support from institutional bodies. As urbanisation rises, the need for innovative transportation solutions increases. If the sector is properly developed and invested in, the historical challenges of the rail industry could be converted into catalysts for the creation of sustainable metropolises on the continent.

Sustainable cities are achieved by concentrating on the community’s holistic future rather than solely on environmental responsiveness. Sustainable city programmes will encompasses a focus on social and economic progress, such as addressing the need for greater social inclusion. This is especially poignant in Africa, where weak infrastructure between rural and urban areas exacerbates social and economic inequality.

How can rail help African cities to become sustainable, and avoid the potential risks posed by rapid urbanisation?

  • By providing an affordable mode of transportation for passengers in and between cities and a cost effective option for long-distance freight carriage;
  • By reducing carbon emissions and increasing energy efficiency through further electrification, lighter trains and the use of alternative power sources such as wind power;
  • By easing congestion in city centres by providing viable alternative, and eventually preferable, modes of transport to and from the economic and social hubs;
  • By alleviating barriers to the accessibility of urban resources such as educational institutions, markets, recreational activities and healthcare facilities faced by lower income individuals;
  • By promoting social inclusion;
  • By increasing trade opportunities, which will result in positive job creation and economic productivity; and
  • By enabling policy-makers to meet the increased consumer demands of urban areas.

The rail industry can enable Africa to become future ready by considering multi-pronged innovative developments in the following areas:

  • Integrated, accessible transport systems, including platform–train interface, integrated timetables & ticketing across multiples transport modes

  • Technological developments including cloud computing and connected systems that use data to unlock efficiencies, driverless trains, and automated safety management systems
  • Real time monitoring using sensors and big data analytics for predictive maintenance, traffic flow, operational efficiency including speed and braking settings for fuel efficiency;
  • Collaboration with a new, wider range of partners, such as mergers with non-traditional players in the industry or a shift from hardware to software providers; and
  • Using new technology to improve current efficiency

It is clear that rail has the potential to vastly impact African urbanisation, and innovative developments such as those laid out above are the key to ensuring that this change happens in a sustainable way, which will allow for the development of more sustainable African cities.

The Inside Africa team would like to thank Vishana Makan, Trainee Solicitor, for her contribution to this blog post.


Africa is as dynamic a market as it is diverse. We understand that changes impacting your business can arise rapidly and vary significantly across the continent.

Our understanding of Africa’s markets stems from extensive experience on the ground. Through our Inside Africa blog, we aim to apply this insight to provide you with timely commentary on the latest developments across Africa, as well as insight into the many nations that make up this vast continent.

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