Africa’s era to develop its own railway engineering standards

The African railway system should essentially be designed to meet its demands for railway construction and operation to ensure competitiveness, compatibility and adaptability compared with other international railway systems.

The African railway system should essentially be designed to meet its demands for railway construction and operation to ensure competitiveness, compatibility and adaptability compared with other international railway systems.

Published May 28, 2024


By Galetlolwe Semenya

Starting with an end in mind, the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) requires a “backbone” for Africa to co-exist with its international counterparts, but its biggest challenge is that the 2063 Agenda is still in the proverbial implementation stage without its own engineering intellectual property (IP) for railway infrastructure.

It’s coherently unfortunate that the 2063 agenda for Africa is being implemented under the undeniable and dominating shadow of the silent investment war between the Eastern “Belt and Road" and the Western Investment initiatives, where they have incorporated some of the key geo-strategic countries in Africa, like Kenya and Ethiopia, amongst others, for their own African agenda.

Technological corporations hold unprecedented power and influence where their solutions to political, environmental, and economic challenges are rampant.

In the Global South, technology is developed by countries that own and control intellectual property of their assets, values, and interests, which are imported with little regulation or critical scrutiny.

In 2002, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was relaunched as the African Union (AU) in South Africa, through the then New Partnership for Africa’s Development, to refocus Africa’s potential, which partially misplaced Africa’s development agenda from the predecessor OAU’s perspective plans.

The African Union cabinet essentially recalibrated the predecessors objectives to create the 2063 Agenda to directly address decolonisation, and ridding the continent of apartheid towards increased cooperation and integration to drive Africa’s growth and economic development.

This was undertaken to ignite the 50 year vision which was projected from 2013 to 2063, according to the former chairperson of the African Union Commission, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.

The conflict agenda for Africa is strongly argued in the 2020 World Bank report contesting the synergies of AfCFTA distributional effects and approach to economic development.

The debate expressed by World Bank is that the AfCFTA comes with several limitations, which indicate that AfCFTA fails to capture informal trade flows or new trade flows in sectors and countries that are not trading in the baseline; dynamic gains from trade (such as productivity increases, economies of scale, and learning by doing), thereby leading to higher investment and accelerating imports of higher-technology intermediate and capital goods.

To emphasise this key debate even further, the limitations expressed in this World Bank report mostly apply to the landlocked or less developed countries, where informal trading thrives through unregulated mechanisms and poor railway infrastructure for freight movement.

In contrast to the World Bank’s report, AfCFTA’ s mission is to unpack the untapped informal markets in Africa that must particularly benefit from the railway infrastructure flagship initiatives, especially intra-regional trading in manufacturing sectors .

Coastal countries favoured

The irony of the current situation is that the AfCFTA scope seems to favour and promote coastal countries with a potential access to ports in Africa, which are more viable and lucrative for Foreign Direct Investment returns.

Four years ago, The World Bank report projected that the Intra-AfCFTA exports to AfCFTA partners would rise especially fast for Cameroon, the Arab Republic of Egypt, Ghana, Morocco, and Tunisia. These are all African coastal countries with potential access to ports, which are positioned to be favourable for any type of railway infrastructure instead of the “orphaned” landlocked countries in Africa.

This outcome begs to question the inclusivity of landlocked countries and their role in the AfCFTA.

A case in point according to the 2023 PIDA report is the two flagship railway projects namely, Sena Railway Line Rehabilitation completed in 2019 and the Mombasa - Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway completed in 2022 in Mozambique and Kenya respectively, which are both coastal countries with highly potential ports for non-African countries.


During the 37th African Union Summit in February 2024, Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva expressed low confidence levels on the attempts initiated to restore a global system based on ideological blocs that are not applicable in the real world.

Da Silva views Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) as a group of developing and developed countries that are ideal for the world’s most important arena to open any new cycle of global expansion, and evolution of norms and standards in manufacturing.

The developed countries like Russia and China within BRICS, are enabled to innovate and develop based on their own archives of historical inventory of engineering, research, and development. That’s why Da Silva emphasised during his AU summit speech in February 2024, that only an inclusive approach project would allow the developing countries to establish prosperous, free, democratic and sovereign societies.

Without an inclusive strategic approach for the developing countries in Africa , there will be no evolution of manufacturing norms and standards for African inspired technologies. The time is ripe to revive the best humanist traditions of the great leaders from African technology colonisation.

The industrialisation topic was also expressed in the AU summit in February 2024, where Africa still does not have self-contained systems for railway technologies, and does not set technical barriers to restrict foreign railway products entering into their domestic markets.

Railway standards

Perpetual engineering obstacles in African Railway flagship projects have been extended in Kenya, Morocco and Ethiopia to use European Union (EU) or International Union of Railways standards, while some may opt to use Chinese railway technology standards.

While the African continent is pursuing the AfCFTA objectives, it needs to reinforce and actively join in the establishment and revision of strategies, policies, and rules in international standardisation organizations (ISO) and UIC.

Moreover, Africa’s railway network should encourage experts and institutes to undertake more important roles in these organisations so as to make a greater contribution and promote influence in the activities of these organisations.

Africa’s railway network development should also track the activities of international railway engineering standards, convert international standards applicable to Africa, and accelerate integration between the African railway engineering standards and their counter parts.

In the long run, Africa will eventually and actively lead or participate in the establishment and revision of international standards and promote increased African inspired technologies to be incorporated into international standards.


On the rail transport sector according to the latest 10-year Programme for Infrastructure Development for Africa (PIDA) report, its statistics estimates show that transport infrastructure projects make up 50% of the 409 registered and approved PIDA projects to reverse Africa’s legacy of under-investments in transport infrastructure.

This initiative is envisaged to significantly increase the rail network by almost 26500km through the rail related projects, which make up 10% of the PIDA transport projects. This effectively means that the AfCFTA provides an opportunity to build Africa’s railway network by increasing the intra-Africa freight demand by 28%.

Since May 2019 when the AfCFTA entered into force, there has been an influx of FDI’s influenced by the PIDA railway list of projects for rehabilitating the railway network, and unremitting implementation of technological innovation.

Africa needs to strategically build up a systematic and complete technology and engineering standard system that contains three subsystems, respectively for high speed, conventional and heavy haul and covers all railway variants such as locomotives, trailers and motor coaches, track, communication, signalling, traction power supply, operation services and system integration.

The African railway system should essentially be designed to meet its demands for railway construction and operation to ensure competitiveness, compatibility and adaptability compared with other international railway systems.

Africa requires a collective of experienced railway engineers and subject matter experts, to start archiving advanced technologies and data analytics to monitor and analyse the condition of assets in real time.

Since 2011, multi-disciplinary engineers in railways of the University of Stellenbosch have contributed in analysing historical data and comparing it with real-time data, predictive maintenance systems that can predict the remaining useful life of assets and recommend the most appropriate maintenance actions.

This data will enable the engineers to develop railway engineering standards that address the outcome of the analysis to suit the old and new challenges in the African landscape instead of foreign landscapes.

This is the cash cow that international OEMs are benefiting from, railway assets, which span between 50 to 100 years that guarantees their industrial warehouses in Africa because they own the intellectual property of the railway assets throughout their lifecycle until they are disposed.

By addressing these dependency issues at the earliest possible stage, AfCFTA may start a phased programmatic African based engineering standard development while executing the current railway infrastructure to avoid futuristic costly repairs, minimise disruptions in service, and ensure the safety of passengers and predictable delivery of freight.

It’s inevitable that Africa will once again be subjected to rehabilitate its railway infrastructure in the future after about 50 years or so, hence it’s important to design and develop railway engineering standards for the African continent.

It’s our responsibility as Africans, to reap off the low hanging fruits of our Ancestors and replant the seeds again for the African Child, so that they don’t fall where their predecessors fell and believe that engineering is a far-fetched ideology in Africa.

Africa is rich with railway engineering knowledge and the cornerstone of over 164 years of railway operations in South Africa provides AfCFTA with a case to change how railway assets are engineered and procured for Africa.

Galetlolwe Semenya holds a Mechanical Engineering Degree from the University of Johannesburg and a Masters degree in Business Administration from Wits University. She is a Railway System Specialist, with 18 years of railway experience and knowledge in South Africa, Ghana, Kenya ,Zambia, France and UAE.