As a railway expert working for the World Bank, I engage with many client countries that are looking to expand or upgrade their railway systems. Whenever someone pitches a railway investment, my first question is always, “What are your trains going to carry?” I ask this question because it is fundamental to railway financing.
Railways are very capital intensive and increasingly need to attract financing from the private sector to be successful. That is why the World Bank recently updated its Railway Toolkit to include more information and case studies on railway financing. Here, in a nutshell are the key lessons about railway financing from this update.
Kenya recently launched its high-capacity, high-speed standard gauge railway (SGR) for passenger and freight transportation, which currently runs from the coastal city of Mombasa to the capital city, Nairobi. The SGR replaces the meter gauge railway passenger line that was constructed during the British colonial period that was commonly referred to as the lunatic express.
The Kenyan SGR is part of a proposed wider regional network for the development of railway connecting Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan. Each of these countries is expected to develop the part of the railway line falling within its borders. Kenya is ahead of the pack, being the first country in the region to operationalize the SGR.
On Monday, China officially launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in a ceremony with representatives from the bank's 57 founding-member countries. AIIB will have a capital base of US$100 billion, three-quarters of which come from within Asia.
At the inaugural ceremony in the Great Hall of the People, Chinese President Xi Jinping reaffirmed the new institution's mission, saying that "Our motivation [for setting up the bank] was mainly to meet the need for infrastructure development in Asia and also satisfy the wishes of all countries to deepen their co-operation."
Indeed, the AIIB is a major piece of China's regional infrastructure plan, which aims to address the huge needs for expanding rail, road and maritime transport links between China, central Asia, the Middle East and Europe. But the AIIB should also represent a huge opportunity for cooperation not only between countries in the region but also with other multilateral development banks.
Our experience working on transport mega-projects co-financed by several multilateral development banks (MDBs) already shows that this collaboration is much needed and critical for the success and viability of mega-projects. The most recent experience with the Quito Metro Line One Project, for example, shows that the co-financing banks – World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, Andean Development Corporation and European Investment Bank – brought not only their financial muscle but also their rich and diverse global knowledge and experience. Incidentally, because of the Quito Metro project, all the MDBs involved in the project were dubbed as the “musketeers, ” precisely due to the high degree of collaboration and team work that is making this project a success.
World Bank Sr. Infrastructure Specialist Gerald Ollivier interacts with passengers on the new Wuzhou-Nanning rail line
During a supervision mission in May, our team had the chance to hear from railway users about the many ways in which the new rail line between Wuzhou and Nanning is already having an impact on their lives. Compared to the relatively theoretical ways in which we often assess and talk about railway impact (think "agglomeration benefits" or "improved connectivity and accessibility"), I found this experience refreshing and gratifying. For many, the opening of a new railway line brings about a host of opportunities, whether it is new jobs, the possibility of meeting more clients or meeting existing clients more frequently, a chance to visit relatives located far away, or maybe even an opportunity to do a bit of tourism.
The first half of the NanGuang railway line opened in mid April 2014. It is one of the six railway projects currently supported by the World Bank in China. It connects the city of Wuzhou to Nanning, two cities located 240 km apart, in the relatively poor autonomous region of Guangxi. The train, a brand new Electric Motorized Unit (see picture below), is clean and modern. It cuts across a highly mountainous terrain, zooming at about 200 kph through many tunnels and bridges.
The Yangon Circular Railway is the local commuter rail network in Yangon, Myanmar. In this recording, World Bank Country Manager Kanthan Shankar boards the train on a three-hour ride around the city. "You see a panorama of life unfolding before you and you feel a part of the picture," he says, reflecting on the daily lives of the people in Yangon, "There's a huge opportunity for commerce and private sector growth. Yangon and Myanmar is lucky that it has basic infrastructure in place. It's a matter of rehabilitating these and aiming for a smoother ride to pave the way for commerce,"