How an old train sys­tem gets back on track

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

AT the old train sta­tion in Benin’s eco­nomic cap­i­tal Cotonou, a run­down lo­co­mo­tive im­ported from France in the 1960s ar­du­ously roars to life, ready to haul 600 tonnes of goods to an in­land city.

“If it doesn’t break down, it will get there in 12 hours,” says Mar­cel Agon, who has been sta­tion­mas­ter since 1985, about the 430-kilo­me­tre (270-mile) trip to Parakou.

Only 20 good trains leave the small ter­mi­nus each month, yet a fine new re­gional ex­press pas­sen­ger train with blue seats and bright paint­work, also from France, has never rolled out of Cotonou.

When French in­dus­trial gi­ant Bol­lore took Benin’s rail net­work in hand in April 2014, rail­way em­ploy­ees thought things were get­ting back on track, un­til a court stopped work the next year. It up­held a com­plaint from a Beni­nese busi­ness­man with his own plans to knock the rail­road back into shape.

Now Benin’s new busi­ness­man pres­i­dent has promised to find a so­lu­tion to the con­flict­ing in­ter­ests that have blocked the hopes of mod­ern rail trans­port.

“We are go­ing to get out of this hor­net’s nest soon,” Pres­i­dent Patrice Talon re­cently told jour­nal­ists.

It was in Novem­ber 2013 that the heads of state of lit­tle Benin and land­locked Niger to the north ini­tially de­cided to es­tab­lish Beni­rail, a multi­na­tional firm with Bol­lore as a strate­gic part­ner.

In barely three months, Bol­lore Africa Lo­gis­tics (BAL) ren­o­vated the sta­tion, paid wage ar­rears and im­ported track to link Cotonou with Niger’s cap­i­tal Niamey, with fur­ther plans to ex­tend the rail­way to Burk­ina Faso and Togo and on to Abid­jan in Ivory Coast.

The aim was to kick­start growth in five of the world’s poor­est coun­tries in West Africa.

Rail­roads came to Benin, then called Da­homey, in 1936. But like other African na­tions the rail­way was just in­ter­nal. No sig­nif­i­cant in­ter­na­tional net­work ex­ists ex­cept in South Africa.

BAL’s start how­ever was a bit too fast for its Beni­nese ri­val, mil­lion­aire busi­ness­man Sa­muel Dos­sou, CEO of Petrolin, who had his own rail plans and filed a suit against Bol­lore.

This is “a project that he started him­self and paid out of his own pocket for the stud­ies”, Dos­sou’s wife and Petrolin board mem­ber Clau­dine Afi­avi Pru­den­cio said at the time. The days when “peo­ple can tram­ple on the rights of Beni­nese busi­ness­men in their home­land are over”, she added.

In­deed, BAL had no le­gal au­tho­ri­sa­tion to be­gin work. In a rul­ing handed down on Novem­ber 19, 2015, the Cotonou court of ap­peal up­held Dos­sou’s com­plaint and or­dered “the end of all work un­der­taken” im­me­di­ately.

Dos­sou has been try­ing to take charge of the rail net­work in the former French colony since 2004, the year the state re­laxed its grip on the OCBN (Joint Benin-Niger Or­gan­i­sa­tion of Rail­ways and Trans­ports).

But for lack of funds, no ten­ders were hon­oured un­til 2010, when Dos­sou and the two states fi­nally ne­go­ti­ated to in­te­grate a rail net­work. Stud­ies were car­ried out, but came to nought, ac­cord­ing to Gus­tave Sonon, a former min­is­ter of public works. “Dos­sou didn’t have the re­sources,” Sonon said.

“When I went into gov­ern­ment, I had a choice be­tween al­low­ing Bol­lore to con­tinue or to­tally block­ing the project,” the former min­is­ter told AFP. “Good progress had been made and for that rea­son I pushed things on a bit.” But since the court brought work to a halt last year, a huge stock of new track in­tended to cover a dis­tance of 500 kilo­me­tres (310 miles) has been ly­ing in Cotonou, ox­i­dis­ing in the sun.

Across the bor­der in Niger the Bol­lore group has be­gun to lay 150km of track in the vast and partly desert na­tion, which sorely needs ac­cess to the sea, and is threat­en­ing to by­pass Benin.

“They are threat­en­ing to build a rail­way through Togo and aban­don the port of Cotonou if Benin doesn’t choose Bol­lore,” said a source close to the case, who added that “in any event, every­thing will be ne­go­ti­ated in Paris.” Both Petrolin and BAL de­clined to com­ment when con­tacted by AFP.

But Talon, a cot­ton ty­coon who was elected pres­i­dent with 65 per­cent of the vote and took office in April, de­clared that ne­go­ti­a­tions were un­der way when he gave a press con­fer­ence af­ter re­turn­ing from Paris, where he had talks with in­dus­trial mag­nate Vin­cent Bol­lore.

“What has been done up un­til now has many flaws be­cause it was done in haste,” Talon said, but in­sisted the im­passe would end soon. Mar­cel Agon, the el­derly sta­tion­mas­ter, sure hopes that a work­ing com­pro­mise can be reached – be­fore his re­tire­ment in the next two or three years.

“God will­ing, be­fore I re­tire, I shall see this sta­tion full of pas­sen­gers and my coun­try mov­ing for­ward,” he says as the rusty old goods train trun­dles to­wards the hori­zon. –

Photo: AFP

A rail­way worker drives the lo­co­mo­tive out of the old train sta­tion in Benin’s eco­nomic cap­i­tal Cotonou.

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