Interview: Patrick Claes
What measures are being taken to upgrade and improve Gabon’s current railway capacity?
PATRICK CLAES: The Transgabonais currently offers eight to nine daily commercial train slots, which is below the 16 daily slots the network could potentially accommodate. The main reason for this gap is the ageing infrastructure, which restricts the speed of traffic. Setrag is committed to restoring the Transgabonais’s maximum capacity in the coming six to eight years. We have been running losses for the past nine years and will not return to profitability if Setrag does not recover the ability to handle larger volumes. The government, which owns the infrastructure utilised by Setrag, regards the restoration of the Transgabonais’s capacity as a key driver of economic development.
Together we are strengthening our partnership beyond the initial requirements of the concessioning agreement and have agreed to share the burden of the required CFA180bn (€270m) investment programme. In this regard, the government has agreed to shoulder the cost of the work on the track foundation while Setrag will be responsible for investment on the superstructure. Work will begin during the second half of 2015. The investment programme includes the rehabilitation of the various civil works that make up the track foundation, covering earthen and hydraulic works, as well as major civil engineering projects such as bridges, over the next three years.
Further to this, Setrag will replace the 1.1m sleepers on the network. So as to keep rail services in operation, the work will be spread over eight yearly campaigns. Setrag will also overhaul its traffic control systems within the next two years to boost safety and standards. As a result, the Transgabonais’s capacity will be increased significantly starting from 2018 onwards. Indeed, by 2020-21, it will be back to its original 16 commercial daily slots. To keep pace with this expansion in network capacity, Setrag will spend CFA25bn ($37.5m) during the same period to acquire additional rolling stock and renew its existing stock.
What further strategies can be rolled out to develop passenger railway traffic?
CLAES: Passenger rail has traditionally been treated as a public service in Gabon. Setrag currently has 225,000 passengers per year, accounting for around 25% of the aggregated population of the two large urban centres connected by the line. However, now that the road link between Libreville and Franceville is nearing completion, a number of alternative options are emerging. There are already seven private bus firms serving both cities, with cheaper fares and more flexible schedules. As road competition starts affecting its current market share, Setrag must attract passengers by offering a satisfactory service for a lower fare.
Overhauling the traffic management systems will reduce the transit time at stations and allow for a greater observance of planned schedules. The rehabilitation of the tracks will allow for an increase in average speeds and, in the medium term, a reduction of journey duration from 18 to 12 hours. Setrag has also started reducing costs and revamping its organisation to reduce the operating costs of its passenger services. This will take about a year to bear fruit.
The development of niche offers will also increase Setrag’s passenger business, building on the railway’s ability to handle both passengers and heavy freight. Since late 2014, Setrag has offered a weekly transportation service for passengers and their cars. While demand has grown for this service, such value-added offers are only complementary additions to Setrag’s priority of promoting a fairly priced basic service for all passengers.
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