African Railway

Africa’s Freedom Railways may be a bankrupt shambles, but it makes for marvellous TV, writes Tim Dowling

African Railway

African Railway – BBC 2010

African Railway (BBC4) opens with journalist Sean Langan riding out with a maintenance crew to repair a stretch of track somewhere along the Tanzania-to-Zambia railway. But they don’t quite get there: the maintenance trolley breaks down in the middle of the bush, where elephants wander across the tracks. This sets the tone perfectly. As Langan says: “When a maintenance trolley breaks down, you know a railway is in trouble.”

The 1,100 mile Tazara railway was built by the Chinese between 1970 and 1975, in order to ship Zambia’s copper to the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam. It was China’s biggest ever foreign aid project, but by 2008 it was in financial collapse: staff had not been paid for three months, and there was no fuel to run trains. These days it limps along, a vital but wholly compromised service. Its nickname, the Freedom Railway, is now terribly poignant.

Langan appears to be a relaxed traveller, happy to sit back with a cigarette when things go wrong, but even he finds the Tazara testing. The journey takes, he says, “two or three days”, and it soon becomes apparent why he can’t be more specific. On the return leg, the train is 20 hours late. As a result, he spends a lot of time waiting, smoking and talking to the people who, with deep reserves of patience and ingenuity, keep the trains running as best they can. He visits the driver while they wait for the clearance of a derailed train up ahead. The speedometer in the cab is stuck at 20kph, forcing the driver to estimate his speed by counting telephone poles. “This now,” he says jokingly, glancing out the window, “is zero.”

This pace allows for a leisurely investigation, as Langan wanders round the all-but-abandoned head offices. He finally finds a man in a tie and asks him about the bankruptcy. “No, no, that’s incorrect,” says the man. “We didn’t go bankrupt.” He pronounces the word “bankrupt” as if it were the name of a longstanding enemy.

The Tazara Railway appears to operate in a state of happy, chaotic denial, and its officials are masters in the art of poetic obfuscation. When Langan asks a manager whether he is able to talk to his drivers en route, he answers: “The train drivers, we don’t talk to them because we don’t have the facility in terms of communication equipment.” He clearly doesn’t want to make it seem like a problem, but even his wall clock is broken. “At the moment,” he says, “it is not connected with power.”

Elsewhere in the building are three Chinese “experts”, and Langan has some sport playing the friendly ones who speak English off against the party hack who doesn’t. The strongest aspect of this marvellous film is that Langan never lets it become simply a picaresque portrait of charming incompetence, comic corruption and exotic scenery. The state of the Freedom Railway is, at its heart, a tragedy. When he asks Cynthia, the purser for first class (who works without rest or holidays, and sleeps on the train between runs, all for less than $20 a week), whether the railway is like home for her, she smiles and says: “It’s like prison.”

© Tim Dowling / The Guardian

Quotes

“African Railway was a leisurely, wryly amusing documentary in which Langan rode the ramshackle rails of the vast Tazara Express, Africa’s so-called freedom railway linking Zambia’s copper belt to Tanzania and, eventually, and significantly, to China.” – Paul Whitelaw / The Scotsman

“Sean Langan’s odd, endearing film African Railway was full of shots like this, proof that his excursion up and down the Tazara railroad, between Tanzania and Zambia really was a one-man affair. The credits at the end claimed that it was Filmed, Produced and Directed by Sean Langan, but it looked as if he was doing Catering, Transport, Costume, Sound and Local Research as well.” – Tom Sutcliffe / The Independent

African Railway – BBC 2010