A little train that couldn't: Zambian and Tanzanian railway needs help

Tanzania and Zambia are trying to get the railway that connects them - the Chinese-built Tazara Railway - back on track.

Once known as the Great Uhuru (''freedom'') Railway, it was built in the 1970 s by Chinese workers and handed over to Tanzania and Zambia to run upon completion in 1976. It has been plagued ever since by lack of equipment, a shortage of skilled workmen, poor management, underpowered Chinese locomotives, slow turnover of rolling stock, and a severe shortage of spare parts. Some 1,000 new wagons are needed.

Tazara has been running at a loss of $106.3 million over the past four years. Its capacity of 2.5 million tons in goods each way was reduced to 1.3 million tons in 1977-8, with further reductions in 1980-81. The transport of passengers was eliminated altogether to make more locomotives available for freight, the majority of which is Zambia's copper exports through Tanzania's port and capital , Dar es Salaam, to Europe.

One pressing problem for Tanzania and Zambia is that repayments on the Chinese loan are due to begin next year. The critical shortage of foreign exchange in both countries, but especially Tanzania, makes it inevitable that they will ask China for a postponement. The Chinese are not likely to be unsympathetic, it is understood.

Tanzania's President Julius Nyerere and Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda have met three times in the past year to find ways to improve the railway's performance.

Help may be coming from other sources. Rehabilitation of the line is part of the program of the nine-member Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC), which has a big transport project for the region aimed at lessening dependence on South Africa. For Tazara, $95 million has been earmarked.

Help is also coming from West Germany, which will provide several 3,000 -horsepower diesel locomotives, although many more might be needed to bring the line up to par.

In the meantime, Zambia is using a different railway line through Zimbabwe to the South African ports to carry substantial portions of Zambia's exports and imports, an example of hard economics taking precedence over politics.

The Tazara Railway cuts through 1,160 miles of wild and often mountainous terrain. As China's first big aid project in Africa, its construction was a triumph for Chinese engineering. The Chinese put up a $412 million interest-free loan for its construction and sent 13,500 Chinese workers to build the track, tunnels, bridges, signaling systems, and stations. A huge, Victorian-style terminus and headquarters was built in Dar es Salaam.

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