Gabon's sole train a lifeline for its people and economy

  • Sunday 15, September 2019 02:16 PM
Sharjah24 – AFP: The sky turns from indigo to ebony as the tropical night falls, and the train patiently thrusts through the jungle towards its destination, still hundreds of kilometres (miles) away.
The trek has the hallmarks of one of the world's Great Forgotten Train Journeys -- a voyage through 648 kilometres (just over 400 miles) of lush equatorial forest.

The train is the brainchild of Gabon's former president, Omar Bongo, who ruled for 42 years until his death in 2009.

In the 1970s, he dreamed of linking the central African state's resource-rich interior to the Atlantic coast -- and he saw it through, despite being rebuffed by the World Bank, which refused to fund it on the grounds that it was not economically viable.

Today, the "Bongo Train", as it is affectionately known, remains the country's sole railway line, linking 23 stations from the coastal capital Libreville to distant Franceville, the country's third most populous city.

"The Transgabonais binds Gabonese society," declares Christian Antchouet Roux, the stationmaster at Franceville.

About 320,000 people take the train every year, a sign of its affordability for the average Gabonese.

Ticket prices depend on the time of year and class -- the train has a VIP carriage, as well as first and second classes.

Passengers travel only at nighttime but in air-conditioned comfort -- a rarity in the world's poorest continent -- and the blue and yellow compartments are modern.

One of them is Miyha Koumba, a young student in Libreville who uses it to visit her family at the other end of the line.

"I take the train at least four times a year. I can visit my parents regularly," she said, arriving in Libreville at 7:00 am bleary-eyed, having departed Franceville at 5:30 pm the day before.

During the day, the train hauls manganese -- a key export after oil -- from the interior to the oceanside capital.