Cape to Cairo Railway
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Cape to Cairo Railway
Cairo-Cape railway
TypeHigh-speed rail
Heavy rail
TerminiCape Town, South Africa
Cairo, Egypt
Track gauge
Electrification25kV 50/60Hz AC
The Rhodes Colossus: Caricature of Cecil John Rhodes, after he announced plans for a telegraph line and railway from Cape Town to Cairo.
  Under British control or influence, 1914

This map shows the chain of colonies from the Cape to Cairo through which the railroad would run. From 1916, Tanganyika Territory was added filling in the gap.
Overview of routes discussed. Not all links displayed were finished.
Boarding Cape to Cairo Railway in the Belgian Congo, c. 1900-1915.
Crossing at Victoria Falls

The Cape to Cairo Railway is an uncompleted project to cross Africa from south to north by rail. This plan was initiated in the late 19th century during the European Scramble for Africa, largely under the vision of Cecil Rhodes. The line would have run through contiguous African possessions of the British Empire from Cape Town, South Africa to Cairo, Egypt. While most sections of the Cape to Cairo railway were eventually built, a major part is missing between Sudan and Uganda.[1] In the early 21st century, many parts of the railway are in minimal operation due to poor track conditions.


The original proposal for a Cape to Cairo railway was made in 1874 by Edwin Arnold, then the editor of the Daily Telegraph, which was joint sponsor of the expedition by H.M. Stanley to Africa to discover the course of the Congo River[2]. The proposed route involved a mixture of railway and river transport between Elizabethville, now Lubumbashi in the Belgian Congo and Sennar in the Sudan rather than a completely rail one[3].

Imperialist and entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes was instrumental in securing the southern states of the continent for the British Empire and envisioned a continuous "red line" of British dominions from north to south. A railway would be a critical element in this scheme to unify the possessions, facilitate governance, enable the military to move quickly to hot spots or conduct war, help settlement and enable intra- and extra-continental goods trade. The construction of this project presented a major technological challenge.

France had a somewhat rival strategy in the late 1890s to link its western and eastern African colonies, namely Senegal to Djibouti. Southern Sudan and Ethiopia were in the way, but France sent expeditions in 1897 to establish a protectorate in southern Sudan and to find a route across Ethiopia. The scheme foundered when a British flotilla on the River Nile confronted the French expedition at the point of intersection between the French and British routes, leading to the Fashoda Incident and eventual French retreat.

The Portuguese considered an Angola to Mozambique railway to link west with east and produced the "Pink Map" representing their claims to sovereignty in Africa (to link Angola and Mozambique).

Opposition to British rule in South Africa was settled after the First and Second Boer Wars (ended 1902 but only incorporating its two states into a union Republic in 1910).

Missed completion

British interests had to overcome obstacles of geography and climate, and the competing imperial schemes of the French and Portuguese mentioned above and of the Germans. In 1891, Germany secured the strategically critical territory of German East Africa, which along with the mountainous rainforest of the Belgian Congo precluded the building of a Cape-to-Cairo railway.

In 1916 during World War I British and British Indian soldiers won the Tanganyika Territory from the Germans and after the war the British continued to rule the territory, which was a League of Nations mandate from 1922. The continuous line of colonies was complete. The British Empire possessed the political power to complete the Cape to Cairo Railway, but economics, including the Great Depression of the 1930s, prevented its completion before World War II.[] After World War II, the decolonisation of Africa and the establishment of independent countries removed the colonial rationale for the project and increased the project's difficulty, effectively ending the project.

Current links

South Africa to Zambia

The southern section was completed during British rule before the First World War and has an interconnecting system of national railways using the Cape-gauge of . Construction started from Cape Town and went parallel to the Great North Road to Kimberley, through a part of Botswana to Bulawayo. From this junction the link proceeds further north, today operated by the National Railways of Zimbabwe, to the Zambezi crossing. The Victoria Falls Bridge was completed in 1905. The connection is picked up by Zambia Railways and continues to Kapiri Mposhi which is the transition point to the TAZARA link to Tanzania.


During the British Empire, there was no connection between East Africa's metre-gauge railways and southern Africa's Cape-gauge railways. In 1970-1975, the Tanzania-Zambia Railway (TAZARA) was built with Chinese funding and a Chinese-African work force, providing Zambia with a trade route that bypassed apartheid South Africa, white-ruled Rhodesia, and Portuguese Mozambique. Running 1,860 km from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia, TAZARA shares the gauge of Southern Africa.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, TAZARA played a major role in the struggle between the Frontline States and apartheid South Africa.[4] After the end of apartheid in South Africa, it lost its political significance and deteriorated due to lack of maintenance. However, the Chinese government has been unwilling to see it shut down and continues to provide funds to keep the railway operational.

Kidatu connection

In 1998, a transshipment hub was built at Kidatu in southern Tanzania to connect the Cape gauge TAZARA line with the metre gauge Central Line (Tanzania). This also shortened the distance by turning northward before reaching the sea.

East Africa

East Africa has a network of narrow gauge railways that historically grew from ports on the Indian Ocean and went westward, built in parallel under British and German colonial rule. Eventually these networks were linked, so that there was a continuous rail connection from northern Uganda to Kampala on Lake Victoria, and then to the coastal cities of Mombasa in Kenya and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

Until 1977, these companies operated as East African Railways, but they were split into national companies when the East African Community broke up. The railway line connecting Kenya to Tanzania has been abandoned. The Uganda Railway deteriorated from lack of maintenance.

Standard gauge railways are being built to replace the decrepit metre-gauge railways. In 2017, the China Road and Bridge Corporation completed the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) in Kenya.[5] Construction is underway to extend the SGR from Nairobi to Naivasha. The Tanzania Railways Corporation is also building a standard gauge line from Dar es Salaam towards Rwanda.

Northern section

Egypt has a rail system that as early as 1854 connected Alexandria and Cairo, and that currently goes as far south as Aswan. In Egypt the railway is . After a ferry link up on the Nile, the railway continues in Sudan from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum at the narrow gauge; see Northern Africa Railroad Development. This part of the system was started by Lord Kitchener in 1897 when he subjugated the Mahdist uprising. Further railway links go south, the most southern point being Wau.

South Sudan became independent in 2011. The border between Sudan and South Sudan is closed, and the railways in South Sudan are no longer operational.

Most of Sudan's railway network is in disrepair due to political turmoil and US sanctions. A Khartoum-Atbara train began running in 2014 after China provided equipment and supplies.[6] Other trains have been put into operation in the vicinity of Khartoum.[7]


The Court Treatt expedition, an attempt to travel from Cape to Cairo by road, was made in 1924 using two cars.[8]

The Cape to Cairo Road was planned to roughly connect the same countries. That plan was updated with the Cairo-Cape Town Highway plan, large sections of which are paved and passable.

In Fiction

John Crowley's science fiction novella Great Work of Time features an Alternative History in which the British Empire survived to the end of the 20th Century and beyond, and the Cape to Cairo Railway was completed. In an early chapter the protagonist travels in comfort the whole route from South Africa to Egypt.

See also


  1. ^ Mallinson, Harriet (28 October 2016). "Chris Tarrant looks back at filming new Extreme Railway Journeys show". Mail Online. Retrieved 2017.
  2. ^ K J Panton, (2015). "A Historical Dictionary of the British Empire", Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, p. 113. ISBN 978-0-81087-801-3.
  3. ^ L Weintal, (1923). "The story of the Cape to Cairo Railway and River Route from 1887 to 1922 (Volume 4)", London, Pioneer Publishing, p. 4
  4. ^ Harden, Blaine (7 July 1987). "The Little Railroad that Could". The Washington Post.
  5. ^ "Kenya opens Nairobi-Mombasa Madaraka Express railway". BBC. Retrieved 2017.
  6. ^ Foltyn, Simona (14 November 2016). "Riding the Nile train: could lifting US sanctions get Sudan's railway on track?". The Guardian.
  7. ^ "Sudan to Link Railway Network to S. Sudan and Ethiopia". Sudan Tribune. 3 January 2018.
  8. ^ "CAPETOWN TO CAIRO BY MOTOR". The Brisbane Courier. National Library of Australia. 29 August 1924. p. 14. Retrieved 2012.


External links

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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