The idea of a Mchinji-Chipata railway was conceived in 1982 – 30 years ago this year – as part of a bilateral project between Zambia and Malawi. The Malawian government completed the line on their side of the border with assistance from Canada in 1984, within the stipulated time. The Zambian part of the scheme (only 24km) stalled however for lack of funds. The project was not revived until 2006 when then president Levy Mwanawasa rekindled interest at an estimated cost of $US10 million.
The railway was completed and officially opened in August 2010 but has not functioned due to the lack of facilities at Chipata. Kabwata Member of Parliament Given Lubinda was quoted two years ago pointing out that if the line remained dormant, it risked being vandalised by “unscrupulous people“. In January 2011, according to communication and transport minister Geoffrey Lungwangwa, the government signed a $US1.5 million memorandum of understanding with the China Civil Engineering Construction Company for feasibility studies on extending the line about 250km from Chipata via Petauke to the Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority (Tazara) at Mpika. In February 2011, the government floated a tender for the construction of a dry port and goods shed at Chipata station. According to Zambia Railways Limited acting managing director Regina Mwale, lack of funds has delayed the erecting of the dry port. Chipata-Mchinji railway project engineer Ernest Silwamba says the Zambian Government engaged a Chinese firm to do a feasibility study on construction of a dry port. The feasibility study has been completed but design work has still to be undertaken. Until the proposed facility is built, says Central East African Railways (Cear), which is to work the line, there is no point in running trains. Cear made it clear at the same time that it will not be running passenger services unless the operating cost of these is subsidised.
Agriculture, which employs about 80% of the country’s workforce, is the main activity in Zambia’s eastern province. According to Zambia Development Agency (ZDA) export promotion officer Charles Mulombwa, the province contributed 531,810 tonnes of maize – about 21% of the national output during the 2008/9 agricultural season – and 73% of the sunflower cultivation in the country.
Zambia’s main railway, some 500km to the west, runs north-south and provides routes to the ports of Beira, Dar es Salaam and Durban. It is more than 1,000km from the capital Lusaka to Beira, nearly 2,000km to Dar and even more than that to Durban. The unused line from Chipata gives access to northern Mozambique’s port of Nacala, about 1,150km by rail through Malawi.
The economic survival of Zambia, being landlocked, is highly dependent on good transport for the movement of exports and imports.