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Opinions of Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Columnist: Joseph Ackah-Blay

Rusty Rails: The story of Ghana's lost glory and government's new worry

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Of all the means of transport in Ghana – road, air and sea – the weakest link remains railways.

It didn’t use to be that way because Ghana’s Independence came with a strong railway sector. In colonial times, railway expenditure accounted for 31.4% of total public expenditure between 1898-1931. It was the single largest expenditure item in colonial budgets.

But from the early 80’s, poor management, corruption and weak investments have literally screeched the coaches to a halt, leaving the rails, a rusty relic.

Ghana’s rail infrastructure is classified into three, the Western line that has major networks like the Sekondi to Tarkwa line, Tarkwa to Huni Valley, Takoradi to Kojokrom among others.

The Eastern line includes Accra to Achimota, Achimota to Nsawam and Koforidua to Tafo. Huni Valley to Achiasi, Achiasi to Kade form part of the central line.

Long before the desire of many Ghanaians to fall on passenger buses nicknamed ‘trotro’ to move around, rail had a place. Operations began in 1898 under the Gold Coast Civil Service with headquarters in Sekondi. It was transferred to Takoradi after the building of the harbour.

The rail tracks consist of rails, fasteners, railroad ties or sleepers and the underlying subgrade.

The Railway system in Ghana had glorious days when it employed many and impacted different aspects of the economy. A retired railway worker, Francis Eghan, recalled those days of rail.

“Hitherto, the railway was running at a profit because there was no competition.”

The decline it suffered post-Independence was never reversed and it only transported 970 tons of goods and 2,900 passengers in 2000, almost three times less than before the mid-1970s.

Similarly, while railways accounted for more than 70% of cocoa transport until the early 1970s, this share decreased to one third in the 1980s and was 7% in 2000.

It’s now a pale shadow of the past, tracks in bad shape, coaches’ non-existent, plus low patronage and investment.

Secretary of the Railway Workers Union, Godwin Ntarmah, explained that “from 85-86, the decline started to happen.”

“The express train which went to Kumasi, never returned because the tracks had been removed,” Francis Eghan also added.

Vehicular transport began to step in as a natural and relatively reliable alternative. The roads took over from the rails and hauled goods like timber, gold, cocoa from mining and farming areas to mainly the ports and harbours.

This competition some allege, had government backing and came as no surprise to them that the sector slowly crushed and became non-existent at some point

Former Principal Administrative Officer of the Ghana Railway Company, Samuel Kokovena, observed that “it is the lack of it [investment in rail] that got them going for the other alternative.”

While the cost of the rail is generally perceived to be high, it is believed to last longer and has the capacity to withstand the pressure of heavy loads, something roads easily deteriorate when subjected to.

The pledge to revamp Ghana’s rail sector is not new. Governments, since the inception of the 4th Republic, have at different points pledged to invest millions but often exit leaving things worse than they actually found it

Sekondi MP, Joe Ghartey, during his Parliamentary vetting as Minister for Railways Development, gave an elaborate analysis of following through with the master plan that will see large cities connected resulting in an economic boom.

Not all persons who have worked and studied the sector are convinced.

While the colonial architecture focused on haulage of goods, attempts have been made recently to give some attention to passenger coaches as well.

The government, however, maintains it has made significant strides towards its goal of boosting trade between big cities through rail development.

The goal remains a line that could move beyond Ghana into other countries.

This would, however, come at a great cost. Railways Minister, Joe Ghartey says investment in excess of a billion cedis will still not provide all the lines needed to meet government’s plan of reaching Paga.

For persons resident in different parts of Ghana, the desire is simple; to have an effective means of moving around.

Long hours spent in moving, poor state of roads and railway lines, rickety cars and coaches with a developing airline means commuters have to face challenges head-on.

Many Ghanaians rely on road transportation to move around.

Governments will change, so will focus and investment in the transportation sector either increase or decline.

Only time will tell whether rail will regain its lost glory or perhaps decline further. For now, the few tracks that are used remain the light at the end of the tunnel. How bright will it shine?

Industry players want government to be cautious and slowly build a resilient sector that can survive on its own.

More than 121 years since railway operations began in 1898, new and few rail tracks could be heralding the rise of the rail from the rust.

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