Efficient Railway Service: Public or Private Driven? By John Li

Service delivery is at the heart of an efficient railway service. Such delivery includes timeliness, cleanliness and safety considerations. The debate is raging in several countries whether such can best be delivered under a public or private sector driven ownership.

In Africa, service delivery is linked to pervasive corruption that has bedeviled the sector. From inflated contracts to outright diversions of earmarked railway fund, the scenario is complicated. The South African situation is a pointer to the challenge of service delivery under an institutionalized corrupt environment .In Nigeria, previous government budgeted over N40 billion for rail sector with nothing to so for it. Railway sector was then regarded as a fertile ground for slush fund. From Kenya to Ghana, the story is not different until recently.

The Ghanaian new government is pushing hard to reposition the sector in term of expansion and improvement of service delivery. Kenya is leading in regional expansion and state of the art service delivery. The debt question is the only nagging aspect. Tanzanian railway authority is on the way to fulfilling new era of efficiency in operations and implementation. Her 2015 to 2018 plan for the railway sector has been faithfully implemented.

Yet there is the problem of cost. The Dakar metro project compared to the Nigerian and the Ivory Coast model raises a lot of question. Those government controlled sector all aim for the best of metro trains to fulfill the yearnings of Africans for state of the art services. Yet many Africans are wondering why the discrepancies in cost for near similar projects across the country.

But the real issue in reality is what difference does it make if railways is state or privately controlled. Many Africans argue for private sector management of the railways. The reasoning is that service is better delivered and that efficiency is guaranteed. That thought runs the Francophone sector where the railways are virtually in the hands of a public private sector management.

Does it work well for the French speaking Zone? The result is mixed.

For other parts of Africa, nothing is certain. Railway service is still at elementary stage in most African States minus South Africa. The North African States are also a bit advanced compared to Sub-Sahara Africa. State run services still predominate with a movement towards PPP arrangements.

In Europe, a lot is happening .While Labour in UK will hope for re-nationalisation of the railways, others will kick. However, in reality, great railways system in Europe appears to be state driven. As an expert puts it, privatisation of the railways has nothing to do with the EU. German state owns Deutsche Bahn, and France owns SNCF.

For long time to come, service delivery will continue to dominate the sector. Unless service improves, the justification for huge expenditure on the sector may wane. If device delivery is a nagging question, the sector must prepare for the eventual robotisation or digitization of the sector.

Will a digitized service be more efficient than human monitored system? Time will tell.

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