Thomas Kautzor (and Torsten Schneider) have been out and about in the
railway backwaters of Africa. (If you feel tempted to search Wikipedia for
more information, don't bother! RD)
CGTA Zinga – Mongo:
While the Central African Republic is on the list of countries without any railways, this was not always the case.
The Compagnie Générale de Transport en Afrique Equatoriale (CGTA) operated riverboat services between Brazzaville and Bangui (1350 km) on the Congo and Oubangui rivers, and with smaller units between Bangui and Kemba (700 km) on the Oubangui. At Zinga, 85 km downriver from Bangui, a series of rapids made navigation difficult during periods of low water flow (4-5 months per year) and as a result a 600 mm gauge 9 km long railway was built sometime between 1918 and 1930 to the village of Mongo to the north of Zinga for the transfer of passengers and goods. From “Steam in Africa” by A.E. Durrant/C.P. Lewis/A.A. Jorgensen we know that this railway had four steam locomotives:
O&K 0-4-0T N°. 020
O&K 0-6-2T N°. 031
- ex-HFB 0-8-0T N°. 040
- ex-USATC Baldwin 2-6-2T N°. 131.
In 1954 two diesel locomotives came to the railway. Between 1949 and 1962, a 2.50 m deep channel was dug to allow year-round navigation and after completion the railway was closed.
An article from 1998 in a French railway magazine (Jean-Pierre Dubarry, “Lignes perdues en Centrafrique”, Connaissances du Rail N°. 208, 11/2008) showed that at least two steam locos and some wagons were still at Zinga. Later photos on the internet confirmed this
(eg http://www.sozoala.com/galeries/zinga/zinga.htm link dead 25th August
and in 2006 the cultural heritage branch of the CAR government submitted for the entire site to be placed on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage
Getting to Zinga from the capital Bangui involved a 107 km drive on a good paved road (of which there are few in the CAR) to Mbaïki, the regional capital of the southern Lobaye region, then another 82 km on a good earth road. At Zinga we found two steam locos and a number of wagons:
0-6-2T N°. 031 (O&K 11781/1929) – this is one of three locos (11781-3) delivered to Agence Générale des Colonies for the
(then French) Congo - now Congo-Brazzaville - of which another survives plinthed in front of the C.F. Congo-Océan (CFCO) headquarters in Pointe-Noire;
0-8-0T N°. 040 (Henschel 15542/1917, ex-HFB N°. 1743, Ersatzpark Berlin) -
this is a Brigadelok - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trench_railways#German_Equipment.
5 Péchôt bogie wagons (ex-French Army “Plats d’Artillerie”);
23 Pershing bogie wagons (ex-USATC), including two covered.
The two locos are in surprisingly good condition, especially given the high humidity and their closeness to the river, and still have all their fittings inside the cab. Even the CGTA logos and the numbers are still visible. Both have plates with their construction numbers above the fire-box doors which allowed identification. Both also still carry a dealer’s plate on the side of the cab (Gaetani – Pr. Boey & Emm. Borsu, Paris). They are stored inside a long shed on two tracks connected by a point, together with most of the wagons. Beyond this all the way to Mongo the entire track has been lifted (we found some rails for sale in Bangui which might have come from here). Five of the Pershing wagons are scattered beside the shed, separated from their bogies. On the quay next to the shed is a stationary boiler formerly used to power a transfer crane. A spare boiler sits on one of the flat wagons inside the shed.
Further south there are some more buildings, some of which have been converted to house the police and the gendarmerie (the D.R. of Congo is across the river), while a large warehouse is abandoned. All of the railway equipment is said to still be owned by CGTA’s successor, the Société Centrafricaine de Transports Fluviaux (SOCATRAF), whose river boats still stop at Zinga on the way between Bangui and Brazzaville. Abandoned on the river bank is the “Gouverneur Lamblin”, a sternwheeler built in 1920.
From Zinga there is a road to Mongo, however this is only used once a week by a priest on his way to mass. Anyone else who goes to Mongo gets there on foot. The railway used to run between that road and the Oubangui river and shortly before reaching Mongo we were shown a small concrete railway bridge that crossed one of its tributaries. At Mongo we were welcomed by the village chief, who showed us around the remains of the railway and port. The station building is abandoned, while the large warehouse has been converted into a school. Under a tree in the middle of the village we found the remains of another boiler, while some wagon skips were scattered around the village.
A second 600 mm gauge railway was used by CGTA to circumvent rapids at Mobaye, 400 km upstream from Bangui. However it was only a few hundred
metres long and the wagons are thought to have been hand-pushed. It was abandoned following the introduction of more powerful riverboats in the 1950s.
A number of projects to link Bangui to Fort-Lamy (today N’Djamena), the capital of Chad, never made it much past the planning stage. The latest of these in 1956 led to the formation of the “Société d’Etudes du Chemin de Fer de Bangui au Tchad”, which planned a 1105 km long 600 mm gauge diesel-operated railway via Bossembélé, Bassangoa, Markonda (border at km 495), Laï and Bousso. In N’Djamena the Chagoua bridge over the Chari River was even built so as to later allow the laying of the railway track. Following independence in 1960, nothing more came of it.
SCAD Sawmill, Mbaïki:
On our way back to Bangui we made a detour via the SCAD sawmill 28 km south of Mbaïki on the banks of the Lobaye River. A photo on the Internet from a previous visitor showed the presence there of what looked like three large loco boilers used to power the mill. Upon arrival we found the mill inactive and saw that a brand-new industrial boiler had been installed, but the three old boilers were still there. We were sent to meet the friendly Lebanese manager of the factory, who told us that it had been shut down since 2008 when the new boiler had arrived from Belgium, but that they had never managed to get it to work.
No signs that would have made it possible to identify the three old boilers could be found. Both the manager and later in Bangui the owner told us that the factory opened in the 1950s and that the boilers were ex-loco boilers originally built in the late 1920s/early 30s. However the smoke-box doors didn’t look like those on loco boilers at all, although I guess they could have been replaced to allow easier access. If they did indeed come from locos, the most obvious source would have been the C.F. Congo-Océan (CFCO), which was dieselized at that time. While the CFCO’s more modern locos were sold to Mozambique (2-8-2 50.001-6, SACM 8091-5/48 and 8152-4/51 1954 to CFM 141-8, 2-8-2+2-8-2 “Garratt” 100.401-3, BP 7063-5/43 1954 to CFM 990-2) and Angola (2-6-0+0-6-4 “Golwé” 90.101-5, Batignolles 610-4/35 1954 to C.F. Moçamedes) at the time, there was no further use for the following older locos:
2-8-2 141.001-6 (Corpet-Louvet 1785-90/30);
7x 2-6-0+0-6-2 “Golwé” (Haine-St-Pierre 1664-6/29, 1704-5/31 & Batignolles 602-3/35);
3x 2-6-0+0-6-4 “Golwé” (Haine-St-Pierre 1711-2/33 & 1730/34).
No decision had been made as to what would happen to the old boilers once the new one would be made to operate, with some people suggesting restoration for use as stand-by and others favoring scrapping them.
Although no railways were ever in use at SCAD (before the use of trucks tree logs used to be floated on the river), I found some narrow gauge wagon axles on top of a pile of scrap. I first thought these were from lorries used inside the sawmill, but the manager told me that these had in fact come from the nearby SAFA rubber factory, where a large railway network was formerly used inside the factory as well as into the rubber plantations. He told me that locos must have been in use given the size of the network, but he doesn’t remember seeing any at the factory. SAFA is now closed and everything is very overgrown.