By Ulf Laessing
ATBARA, Sudan (Reuters) - On rail tracks in Atbara, Sudan's main railway city, stray engines and empty coaches from trains built in Europe, India and the United States, some more than 50 years ago, stand still in the scorching heat.
The trains broke down years ago and many of the coach windows have been smashed, while the tracks they stand on are derelict.
Sudan was once home to Africa's largest railway network, with more than 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) of track running from the Egyptian border to Darfur in the west, Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast and Wau in what is now South Sudan.
Today, after decades of mismanagement and neglect, most of the country's rail track is out of service. But the government, with the help of Chinese money and expertise, wants to rebuild it and restore some of the industry's former glory.
Modernizing the railways, Khartoum hopes, will boost the export of livestock and products such as cotton and gum arabic - an edible gum taken from acacia trees and used in soft drinks and drugs. That would help support Sudan's economy, which has been plunged into crisis by the loss of most of the country's oil production since it split from South Sudan in 2011.
"We need the railway," said transport minister Ahmed Babiker Nahar. "Road traffic is expensive. The railway is cheaper, faster, safer and has a bigger capacity. Livestock arrives in better condition by rail."
The government's plan will require considerable investment. State railway operator, the Sudanese Railway Corp., has just 60 trains left in operation. And they cannot travel at more than 40 kilometers an hour because the British-designed wooden sleepers and tracks, mostly laid between 1896 and 1930, are too weak.
"The entire rail network is broken down," said Makawi Awadh Makawi, head of the Sudanese Railway Corp. "We have no passenger trains operating anymore and transport only 10 percent of the cargo traffic in Sudan." Most goods are transported along Sudan's poor road infrastructure.
Makawi said China, Sudan's biggest aid donor and one of the biggest investors in the African country, and South Korea had agreed to replace and repair old freight and passenger trains. Khartoum is also in talks with Ukraine about buying trains and railway track.
He would not disclose details of the train contracts. China typically funds development projects in Sudan by granting loans which pay Chinese firms doing the work on the ground.
Chinese state firms built up much of Sudan's oil industry before the secession of South Sudan and have also built a major dam on the Nile, as well as cross-country roads and are due to build a new airport in Khartoum.
Sudan should become a transport route for some of South Sudan's oil production once the two countries can agree an arrangement.
As part of a drive in Africa to secure raw materials and oil, Chinese firms have also invested in Sudan's gold industry.
"We have a contract with the Chinese for 100 passenger and 100 cargo cars and another deal for 50 cars for oil tanks," said Nahar, adding that South Korea had delivered 13 locomotives so far.
Work to renew the rail tracks started last year when China's Shanghai Hui Bo Investment Co (SHIC) opened a plant in north Khartoum, opposite the Sudanese capital's main train station, and is producing 1,200 concrete sleepers a day, according to its Sudanese manager Sharaf Nasser.
Within two years, officials hope to renew between 1,000 and 2,000 kilometers of track across the country. In a first sign of progress, a daily cargo train has started running from Khartoum to Atbara, some 300 kilometers north of the capital, from where a line to Port Sudan is now being rebuilt.
Officials hope to restart the line from Khartoum to Nyala in Darfur via North Kordofan state, where most gum arabic is produced, although no start date has been set. A map in the manager's office of SHIC's plant marks the next vision: extending the rail line from Nyala into neighboring Chad. Sudan announced plans this month to give Chad fixed storage space in Port Sudan to encourage bilateral trade.
In its heyday the state railway operator used to control river trade along the Nile, as well as Sudan's ports and the country's telegraph network, in addition to its rail traffic. Until the 1980s it also owned extensive housing compounds, social clubs and hotels to serve more than 30,000 employees.
"The railway made up 40 percent of GDP in 1959," said Nahar, referring to the total combined income from the railways, ports, river trade and hotels at that time.
In Atbara, where the railway divides the city in two, there are reminders of a glorious past.
One half looks like any other Sudanese town, with low-rise buildings and bustling street vendors, while in the other half, virtually a ghost town, dozens of elegant villas, built by the British to house railway managers, are now derelict.
Among the few occupied buildings is a large colonial-style villa, used as a Sudan army post.
The railway's decline began in the 1980s when the late President Jaafar Nimeiri, fighting economic turmoil, ordered layoffs and cut funds for the railway after failing to break the power of the Communist Party and the trade unions, which frequently ordered rail strikes, paralyzing the economy.
More than 20,000 workers were fired within a decade, most of them after a strike in 1989 after President Omar Hassan al-Bashir came to power in an Islamist coup.
"This regime (under Bashir) destroyed the railway," said Kamal Hussein, a Communist Party member who was fired in 1989 after working as a railway accountant in Atbara and Khartoum for 23 years and now works for a private firm.
"I was fired for political reasons. I had to leave the company housing," said Hussein, who still thinks of the railway as one big family. "The railway was the engine of the economy."
Governments since have struggled to raise funds to maintain railway infrastructure, including buying new trains.
At SHIC's spanking new factory in Khartoum, manager Nasser says the concrete sleepers being produced will allow trains to travel at high speed.
"The new sleepers will allow travel of 180 kilometers per hour," he said.
That would facilitate the shipment of goods across the country including the transport of livestock and agricultural products, which account for around 20 percent of Sudan's exports, according to central bank data.
Boosting exports of gold, minerals and agricultural products is vital for the country's economy, which has been struggling to contain soaring inflation and a sharp deterioration in the value of the Sudanese pound since the South took away oil revenues.
But at the railway workshop in Khartoum, a large hall which still has signs in English from the colonial era which ended with Sudan's independence in 1956, workers in oil-stained overalls are more skeptical about the government's plans to revive the industry.
"It's not possible for the railway to make a comeback. It will only get worse," said Amir Abdel Hafith, a worker who had just finished his day shift. He makes only 350 Sudanese pounds ($50 based on the black market rate) a month, not enough to pay for food and housing when inflation in Sudan is running at 43 percent.
The state railway company, he says, is giving priority to repairing and maintaining trains owned by private companies, including oil companies, rather than the bulk of train stock which is state-owned, because private companies pay well to have work done.
At Atbara station, railway worker Mohammed Ahmed, standing next to two South Korean rail workers, worries about plans to invest in Chinese and South Korean stock, rather than German and American-built trains as in the old days.
He points to a train with a plaque showing it was made by German firm Thyssen in 1981.
"It was built in 1981 but it's still working. When it comes to the railway, I only believe in American and German technology. They build strong engines," he said. "China and Korea, they don't produce good quality."
(Editing by Susan Fenton)
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