Chipata in the east of Zambia near the border with Malawi was known formerly as Fort Jameson. The idea of a railway linking Mchinji in the west of Malawi with Chipata was conceived in 1982 – 30 years ago last year – as part of a bilateral project between Zambia and Malawi. From Mchinji an existing railway runs eastwards to the Indian Ocean port of Nacala, in Northern Mozambique. With assistance from Canada, the Malawian government completed the line on their side of the border in 1984, within the stipulated time. The Zambian part of the scheme (24km) stalled however for lack of funds. The project stayed on hold – for some 24 years – and 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 three years ago pointing out that if the line remains dormant, it risks being vandalised by “unscrupulous people”.
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 prevented progress. Until the proposed facility is built, said 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.
The unused line from Chipata would – if it were running – provide access to northern Mozambique’s port of Nacala, about 1,150km by rail through Malawi.
Zambian transport, works, supply and communications deputy minister colonel Panji Kaunda has another explanation for the non-operational Chipata line. It is the fault of Rail Systems of Zambia (RSZ), the concessionaire appointed to run Zambia’s railways, he said recently. RSZ, he was quoted saying “was not serious with the project”, adding that the government is now acquiring wagons to “operationalise” the line.
• The Chipata line is nowhere near the rest of the Zambian railway system, and RSZ was not in fact involved at any time. It was agreed from the beginning that Central East African Railways, which operates the railways of Malawi, would work the line from Chipata into Malawi.