Cape to Cairo Railway

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Cairo–Cape railway
StatusOnly a few stretches in operation
5,625 kilometres (3,495 mi)
  • Cape Town, South Africa
  • Port Said, Egypt
TypeHigh-speed rail
Heavy rail
Line length10,489 km (6,518 mi)
Track gauge1,435 mm (4 ft 8+12 in) standard gauge
Electrification25 kV 50/60 Hz 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 railway 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 was an unfinished project to create a railway line crossing Africa from south to north. It would have been the largest and most important railway of that continent. It was planned as a link between Cape Town in South Africa and Port Said in Egypt.[1][2]

The project was never completed. Important parts which were completed have been inoperative for many years, due to wars and lack of maintenance by the former colonies.

This plan was initiated at the end of the 19th century, during the time of Western colonial rule, largely based on the vision of Cecil Rhodes, in an attempt to connect adjacent African possessions of the British Empire through a continuous railway line from Cape Town, South Africa to Cairo, Egypt.[citation needed][3]


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.[4] The proposed route involved a mixture of railway and river transport between Elizabethville in the Belgian Congo (now Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Sennar in the Sudan rather than a completely rail one.[5]

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 in 1902 but only incorporating its two states into the new Union of South Africa in 1910).

Egypt has a rail system that, as early as 1854, connected Port Said, Alexandria and Cairo, and now currently goes as far south as Aswan. In Egypt the railway is 1,435 mm (4 ft 8+12 in) standard gauge. After a ferry link up on the Nile, the railway continues in Sudan from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum at the 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) meter gauge; see Northern Africa Railroad Development. This part of the system was started by Lord Kitchener in 1897 to provide supplies during his war against 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 railway service began running in 2014 after China provided equipment and supplies.[6] Other railway services have been put into place in Khartoum and surrounding areas.[7]

Missed completion[edit]

British interests had to overcome obstacles of geography and climate, and the competing imperial schemes of the French, Portuguese and 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, African and 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 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 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in). 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 proceeded further north. The Victoria Falls Bridge was completed in 1905.

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.[citation needed][8] 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.

Operating segments[edit]

Currently operational length is 5,625 kilometres (3,495 mi) out of total 10,489 kilometres (6,518 mi). The operational status of sections of the railway is as follows:

Connection with other railway systems[edit]

Uganda railway[edit]

East Africa has a network of narrow gauge 1,000 mm (3 ft 3+38 in) railways that historically grew from ports on the Indian Ocean and went westward, built in parallel under British and German colonial rule. The furthest string north was the Uganda Railway. Eventually these networks were linked, so that today there is a continuous rail connection between Kampala, Uganda, on Lake Victoria to the coastal cities of Mombasa in Kenya and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Up to the break-up of the East African Community in 1977, these companies operated as East African Railways, but operate today as different national companies.

TAZARA link[edit]

From Dar es Salaam, a 1,860 km rail link to Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia was built from 1970 to 1975 as a turnkey project financed and supported by China. This Tanzania-Zambia-Railway (TAZARA) was built to connect landlocked Zambia and its mineral wealth to a port on the Indian Ocean, independent from port connections in South Africa, a frequent rival economic competitor in the mining sectors or Mozambique, at that time Portuguese-controlled territory. Not intended in the grand picture of the Cape to Cairo Railway, the TAZARA fills a critical link. This connection uses the 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) gauge of the southern part of Africa.

Benguela-Katanga link[edit]

In the city of Tenke, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, there is an interconnection of the Cape-Cairo Railway with the Katanga-Benguela railway linking it to the port of Lobito in Angola, on the Atlantic coast.[1][2]

Kidatu connection[edit]

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

Railway systems in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa[edit]

The railway is connected to the Mozambican, Zimbabwean and South African systems through the Beira-Bulawayo railway, the Limpopo railway and the Pretoria-Maputo railway, reaching the ports of Maputo and Beira.


The Court Treatt expedition, an attempt to travel from Cape to Cairo by road, was made in 1924 using two cars.[9]

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[edit]

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[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Railways of Congo. Shandong: XH Company Minning. 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d e Minning areas in Congo. SKY Company. 2020.
  3. ^ Pitt, Colin (2016). The story of the cape to Cairo Railway. Vol. 2. CP Press. ISBN 978-1910241240.
  4. ^ K J Panton, (2015). "A Historical Dictionary of the British Empire", Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, p. 113. ISBN 978-0-81087-801-3.
  5. ^ Weinthal, Leo (February 20, 1923). "The story of the Cape to Cairo railway and river route from 1887 to 1922; the iron spine and ribs of Africa". London, Pioneer Pub. Co – via Internet Archive.
  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. ^ Callahan, Michael (1993). "NOMANSLAND: The British Colonial office and the League of Nations Mandate for German East Africa, 1916-1920". Albion. 25 (3): 443–464. doi:10.2307/4050877. JSTOR 4050877.
  9. ^ "CAPETOWN TO CAIRO BY MOTOR". The Brisbane Courier. National Library of Australia. 29 August 1924. p. 14. Retrieved 26 August 2012.


External links[edit]