Dozens of passengers line up in single file along the platform in the dead of night, ready to gather their luggage and pile into the aging railway carriages.
At the small railway station in Nampula, in northeastern Mozambique, the 4am train to Cuamba in the northwest is more than full, as it is every day, to the detriment of those slow to board and forced to stand.
In the past few years, the government in Maputo has made developing the train network a priority as part of its economic plan, but mounting public debt has meant that authorities had no choice but to cede control of the project to the private sector.
Seconds before the train — six passenger coaches coupled between two elderly US-made locomotives — leaves Nampula station, the platforms are already entirely empty. Inside, the carriages remain pitch dark as the operator has not installed any lighting.
Five or six passengers cram onto benches intended for four without complaint.
“The train is always full,” Argentina Armendo said. “Lots of people stay standing. Even those who have a ticket can’t be sure of getting on. They should add some coaches.”
“Yes, but it’s not expensive,” conductor Edson Fortes said. “It’s the most competitive means of transport for the poor. With the train, they are able to travel.”
Mario Moura da Silva, the rail operations manager for Corredor de Desenvolvimento do Norte (CDN), the company operating the line, appears more concerned about passenger numbers as a measure of success than their comfort.
Last year, its trains carried almost 500,000 passengers — a 265 percent increase compared with 2016.
“Passenger traffic isn’t profitable, but it’s a requirement of the contract with the government,” Moura da Silva said.
“It’s not that which earns us money, it’s more the retail,” he added, referring to the company’s commercial operation, which has grown by 65 percent in a year.
Brazilian mining giant Vale, which owns CDN along with Japanese conglomerate Mitsui, began its Mozambican rail venture in 2005.
Having won a contract to run the concession from the government, it restored the former colonial line, which linked its inland coal mines with the port at Nacala.
It now operates a network of 1,350km following an investment of nearly US$5 billion.
“The growth potential is enormous,” Moura da Silva said.
Mozambique’s government is eyeing the project as a bellwether for the industry.
“We have made infrastructure one of our four investment priorities,” Mozambican Minister of Transport and Communications Carlos Fortes Mesquita said.
Eight new “rail corridor” projects are now under way in Mozambique, all funded with private capital, as the state grapples with a long-standing cash shortage.
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