5 January 2016

Senegal: No, Senegal Will Not Be the First Sub-Saharan Country With Electric Trains

Photo: Carine Frenk/RFI
The brightly painted "cars rapide" are a hallmark of Senegal’s capital.

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?

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?

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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