Transport in Sudan during the early 1990s included an extensive railroad system that served the more important populated areas except in the far south, a meager road network (very little of which consisted of all-weather roads), a natural inland waterway—the Nile River and its tributaries—and a national airline that provided both international and domestic service. Complementing this infrastructure was Port Sudan, a major deep-water port on the Red Sea, and a small but modern national merchant marine. Additionally, a pipeline transporting petroleum products extended from the port to Khartoum.
Only minimal efforts had been expended through the early 1980s to improve existing and, according to both Sudanese and foreign observers, largely inefficiently operated transport facilities. Increasing emphasis on economic development placed a growing strain on the system, and beginning in the mid-1970s a substantial proportion of public investment funds was allocated for transport sector development. Some progress toward meeting equipment goals had been reported by the beginning of the 1980s, but substantial further modernization and adequately trained personnel were still required. Until these were in place, inadequate transportation was expected to constitute a major obstacle to economic development.
The main system, Sudan Railways, which was operated by the government-owned Sudan Railways Corporation, provided services to most of the country's production and consumption centers. The other line, the Gezira Light Railway, was owned by the Sudan Gezira Board and served the Gezira Scheme and its Manaqil Extension. Rail dominated commercial transport, although competition from the highways has been increasing rapidly. The preeminence of the rail system was based on historical developments that led to its construction as an adjunct to military operations, although the first line, built in the mid-1870s from Wadi Halfa to a point about 54 km upstream on the Nile River, was initially a commercial undertaking. This line, which had not proved viable commercially, was extended in the mid-1880s and again in the mid-1890s to support the Anglo-Egyptian military campaigns against the Mahdiyah. Of little other use, it was abandoned in 1905.
The first segment of the present-day Sudan Railways, from Wadi Halfa to Abu Hamad, was also a military undertaking; it was built by the British for use in General Herbert Kitchener's drive against yo the Mahdiyah in the late 1890s. The line was pushed to Atbarah during the campaign and after the defeat of the Mahdiyah in 1898 was continued to Khartoum, which it reached on the last day of 1899. The line was built to 1067 mm gauge track specifications, the result apparently of Kitchener's pragmatic use of the rolling stock and rails of that gauge from the old line. This gauge was used in all later Sudanese mainline construction.
The line opened a trade route from central Sudan through Egypt to the Mediterranean and beyond. It became uneconomic because of the distance and the need for trans-shipment via the Nile, and in 1904 construction of a new line from Atbarah to the Red Sea was undertaken. In 1906 the new line reached recently built Port Sudan to provide a direct connection between Khartoum and ocean-going transport.
During the same decade, a line was also built from Khartoum southward to Sannar, the heart of the cotton-growing region of Al Jazirah. A westward continuation reached Al Ubayyid, then the country's second largest city and center of gum arabic production, in 1911. In the north, a branch line was built from near Abu Hamad to Kuraymah that tied the navigable stretch of the Nile between the fourth and third cataracts into the transport system. Traffic in this case, however, was largely inbound to towns along the river, a situation that still prevailed in 1990.
In the 1920s, a spur of the railway was built from Taqatu Hayya, a point on the main line 200 km southwest of Port Sudan, south to the cotton-producing area near Kassala, then on to the grain region of Al Qadarif, and finally to a junction with the main line at Sannar. Much of the area's traffic, which formerly had passed through Khartoum, has since moved over this line directly to Port Sudan.
The final spur of railway construction began in the 1950s. It included extension of the western line to Nyala (1959) in Darfur Province and of a southwesterly branch to Wau (1961), southern Sudan's second largest city, located in the province of Bahr el Ghazal. This essentially completed the Sudan Railways network, which in 1990 totalled about 4800 route km.
Conversion of Sudan Railways to diesel fuel started in the late 1950s, but a few mainline steam locomotives continued in use in 1990, serving lines having lighter weight rails. Through the 1960s, rail essentially had a monopoly on transportation of export and import trade, and operations were profitable. In the early 1970s, losses were experienced, and, although the addition of new diesel equipment in 1976 was followed by a return to profitability, another downturn had occurred by the end of the decade. The losses were attributed in part to inflationary factors, the lack of spare parts, and the continuation of certain lines characterized by only light traffic, but retained for economic development needs and for social reasons. A number of South African diesel locomotives are in use in Sudan.
The chief cause of the downturn appeared to have been loss of operational efficiency. Worker productivity had declined. For example, repair of locomotives was so slow that only about half of the total number were usually operational. Freight car turnaround time had lengthened considerably, and the reported slowness of management to meet growing competition from road transport was also a major factor. The road system, although generally more expensive, was used increasingly for low-volume, high-value goods because it could deliver more rapidly—2 or 3 days from Port Sudan to Khartoum, compared with 7 or 8 days for express rail freight and up to two weeks for ordinary freight. At the end of the 1980s, moreover, only one to two percent of freight trains arrived on time. The gradual erosion of freight traffic was evident in the drop from more than 3 million tons carried annually at the beginning of the 1970s to about 2 million tons at the end of the decade. The 1980s also saw a steady erosion of tonnage as a result of a combination of inefficient management, union intransigence, the failure of agricultural projects to meet production goals, the dearth of spare parts, and the continuing civil war. The bridge at Aweil was destroyed in the 1980s and Wau is currently without rail access. During the civil war in the south (1983-2005) military trains went as far as Aweil accompanied by large numbers of troops and militia, causing great disruption to civilians and humanitarian aid organisations along the railway line.
Despite the rapidly growing use of roads, rail has remained of paramount importance because of its ability to move at lower cost the large volume of agricultural exports and to transport inland the increasing imports of heavy capital equipment and construction materials for development, such as requirements for oil exploration and drilling operations. Efforts to improve the rail system reported in the late 1970s and the 1980s included laying heavier rails, repairing locomotives, purchasing new locomotives, modernizing signaling equipment, expanding training facilities, and improving locomotive and rolling-stock repair facilities. One project would double-track the line from Port Sudan to the junction of the branch route to Sannar, thus in effect doubling the Port Sudan-Khartoum rail line. Substantial assistance has been furnished for these and other stock and track improvement projects by foreign governments and organizations, including the European Development Fund, the Development Finance Company, the AFESD, the International Development Association, Britain, France, and Japan. Implementation of much of this work has been hampered by political instability in the 1980s, debt, the dearth of hard currency, the shortage of spare parts, and import controls. Rail was estimated in mid-1989 to be operating at less than 20% of capacity.
The Gezira Light Railway, one of the largest light railways in Africa, evolved from tracks laid in the 1920s' construction of the canals for the Gezira Scheme. At the time, rail had about 135 route km of 610 mm gauge track. As the size of the project area increased, the railway was extended and by the mid-1960s consisted of a complex system totaling 716 route km. Its primary purpose has been to serve the farm area by carrying cotton to ginneries and fertilizers, fuel, food, and other supplies to the villages in the area. Operations usually have been suspended during the rainy season.
President Ismael Omar Guelleh of Djibouti appealed for a 6,000 km landbridge rail line linking his country's Gulf of Tadjourah to Cameroon on the Gulf of Guinea. Estimated to cost $US6 billion, the line would run through the Sudan and the Central Africa Republic. Neighbouring landlocked countries such as southern Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi would all benefit from improved facilities for import and export traffic, as well as Chad. Pointing out that the trade development, peace and economy of the African continent could be considerably enhanced, Guelle suggested that the project forms part of the investment programme proposed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the G8 meeting in Scotland.
In 1990, Sudan's road system totaled between 20,000 and 25,000 kilometers, comprising an extremely sparse network for the size of the country. Asphalted all-weather roads, excluding paved streets in cities and towns, amounted to roughly 3,000 to 3,500 kilometers, of which the Khartoum-Port Sudan road accounted for almost 1,200 kilometers. There were between 3,000 and 4,000 kilometers of gravel roads located mostly in the southern region where lateritic road-building materials were abundant. In general, these roads were usable all year round, although travel might be interrupted at times during the rainy season. Most of the gravel roads in southern Sudan have become unusable after being heavily mined by the insurgent southern forces of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA). The remaining roads were little more than fair-weather earth and sand tracks. Those in the clayey soil of eastern Sudan, a region of great economic importance, were impassable for several months during the rains. Even in the dry season, earthen roads in the sandy soils found in various parts of the country were generally usable only by motor vehicles equipped with special tires.
Until the early 1970s, the government had favored the railroads, believing they better met the country's requirements for transportation and that the primary purpose of roads was to act as feeders to the rail system. The railroads were also a profitable government operation, and road competition was not viewed as desirable. In the mid-1930s, a legislative attempt had been made to prevent through-road transport between Khartoum and Port Sudan. The law had little effect, but the government's failure to build roads hindered the development of road transportation. The only major stretch of road that had been paved by 1970 was between Khartoum and Wad Madani. This road had been started under a United States aid program in 1962, but work had stopped in 1967 when Sudanese-United States relations were broken over the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War. United States equipment was not removed, however, and was used by government workers to complete the road in 1970.
Disillusionment with railroad performance led to a new emphasis on roads in a readjustment of the Five-Year Plan in 1973—the so-called Interim Action Program—and a decision to encourage competition between rail and road transport as the best way to improve services. Paving of the dry-weather road between Khartoum and Port Sudan via Al Qadarif and Kassala was the most significant immediate step; this included upgrading of the existing paved Khartoum-Wad Madani section. From Wad Madani to Port Sudan, the road was constructed in four separate sections, each by different foreign financing, and in the case of the Wad Madani-Al Qadarif section, by direct participation of the Chinese. Other section contractors included companies from Italy, West Germany, and Yugoslavia. The last section opened in late 1980.
Other important road-paving projects of the early 1980s included a road from Wad Madani to Sannar and an extension from Sannar to Kusti on the White Nile completed in 1984. Since then the paved road has been extended to Umm Ruwabah with the intention to complete an all-weather road to Al Ubayyid. Paradoxically, most truckers in 1990 continued to pass from Omdurman to Al Ubayyid through the Sahelian scrub and the qoz to avoid the taxes levied to use the faster and less damaging paved road from Khartoum via Kusti.
A number of main gravel roads radiating from Juba were also improved. These included roads to the towns southwest of Juba and a road to the Ugandan border. In addition, the government built a gravel all-weather road east of Juba that reaches the Kenyan border. There it joined an all-weather road to Lodwar in Kenya connecting it with the Kenyan road system. All these improvements radiating from Juba, however, have been vitiated by the civil war, in which the roads have been extensively mined by the SPLA and the bridges destroyed, and because roads have not been maintained, they have seriously deteriorated.
Small private companies, chiefly owner-operated trucks, furnished most road transport. The government has encouraged private enterprise in this industry, especially in the central and eastern parts of the country, and the construction of allweather roads has reportedly led to rapid increases in the number of hauling businesses. The Sudanese-Kuwaiti Transport Company, a large government enterprise financed largely by Kuwait, began operations in 1975 with 100 large trucks and trailers. Most of its traffic was between Khartoum and Port Sudan. Use of road transport and bus services is likely to increase as paved roads are completed south of Khartoum in the country's main agricultural areas.
The Nile River, traversing Sudan from south to north, provides an important inland transportation route. Its overall usefulness, however, has been limited by natural features, including a number of cataracts in the main Nile between Khartoum and the Egyptian border. The White Nile to the south of Khartoum has shallow stretches that restrict the carrying capacities of barges, especially during the period of low water, and the river has sharp bends. Most of these southern impediments have been eliminated by Chevron, who as part of their oil exploration and development program dredged the White Nile shoals and established navigational beacons from Kusti to Bentiu. A greater impediment has been the spread of the water hyacinth, which impedes traffic. Man-made features have also introduced restrictions, the most important of which was a dam constructed in the 1930s on the White Nile about forty kilometers upriver from Khartoum. This dam has locks, but they have not always operated well, and the river has been little used from Khartoum to the port of Kusti, a railroad crossing 319 kilometers upstream. The Sennar and Roseires dams on the Blue Nile are without locks and restrict traffic on that river.
In 1983 only two sections of the Nile had regular commercial transport services. The more important was the 1,436-kilometer stretch of the White Nile from Kusti to Juba (known as the Southern Reach), which provided the only generally usable transport connection between the central and southern parts of the country. Virtually all traffic, and certainly scheduled traffic, ended in 1984, when the SPLA consistently sank the exposed steamers from sanctuaries along the river banks. River traffic south of Kusti had not resumed in mid-1991 except for a few heavily armed and escorted convoys.
At one time, transport services also were provided on tributaries of the White Nile (the Bahr el Ghazal and the Jur River) to the west of Malakal. These services went as far as Wau but were seasonal, depending on water levels. They were finally discontinued during the 1970s because vegetation blocked waterways, particularly the fast-growing water hyacinth. On the main Nile, a 287-kilometer stretch from Kuraymah to Dunqulah, situated between the fourth and third cataracts and known as the Dunqulah Reach, also had regular service, although this was restricted during the low-water period in February and March. Transport facilities on both reaches were operated after 1973 by the parastatal (mixed government and privately owned company) River Transport Corporation (RTC). Before that they had been run by the SRC, essentially as feeders to the rail line. River cargo and passenger traffic have varied from year to year, depending in large part on the availability and capacity of transport vessels. During the 1970s, roughly 100,000 tons of cargo and 250,000 passengers were carried annually. By 1984, before the Southern Reach was closed, the number of passengers had declined to less than 60,000 per year and the tonnage to less than 150,000. Although no statistics were available, the closing of the Southern Reach had by 1990 made river traffic insignificant.
Foreign economists have characterized the RTC's operations as inefficient, a result both of shortages of qualified staff and of barge capacity. The corporation had a virtual monopoly over river transport, although the southern regional government had established river feeder transport operations, and private river transport services were reported to be increasing until the resumption of the civil war. Despite its favored position, the RTC and its predecessor (SRC) experienced regular losses that had to be covered by government appropriations. In the late 1970s, the corporation procured new barges, pusher-tugboats, and other equipment in an effort to improve services, but this attempt proved useless because of the warfare that had continued from 1983.
In mid-1991, scheduled domestic air service was provided by Sudan Airways, a government-owned enterprise operated by the Sudan Airways Company. The company began its operations in 1947 as a government department. It has operated commercially since the late 1960s, holding in effect a monopoly on domestic service. In 1991 Sudan Airways had scheduled flights from Khartoum to twenty other domestic airports, although it did not always adhere to its schedules. It also provided international services to several European countries, including Britain, Germany, Greece, and Italy. Regional flights were made to North Africa and the Middle East as well as to Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda. The Sudan Airways fleet in 1991 consisted of thirteen aircraft, including five Boeing 707s used on international flights, two Boeing 737s and two Boeing 727s employed in domestic and regional services, and four Fokker F-27s used for domestic flights.
Sixteen international airlines provided regular flights to Khartoum. The number of domestic and international passengers increased from about 478,000 in 1982 to about 485,000 in 1984. Air freight increased from 6 million tons per kilometer in 1982 to 7.7 million tons per kilometer in 1984. As compared with the previous year, in 1989 passenger traffic on Sudan Airways fell by 32% to 363,181 people, reducing the load factor to 34.9%. By contrast, freight volume increased by 63.7% to 12,317 tons. At the end of 1979, Sudan Airways had entered into a pooling agreement with Britain's Tradewind Airways to furnish charter cargo service between that country and Khartoum under a subsidiary company, Sudan Air Cargo. A new cargo terminal was built at Khartoum.
Sudan Airways's operations have generally shown losses, and in the early 1980s the corporation was reportedly receiving an annual government subsidy of about £Sd500,000. In 1987 the government proposed to privatize Sudan Airways, precipitating a heated controversy that ultimately led to a joint venture between the government and private interests. Like the railroads and river transport operators, however, Sudan Airways suffered from a shortage of skilled personnel, overstaffing, and lacked hard currency and credit for spare parts and proper maintenance.
In the early 1980s, the country's civilian airports, with the exception of Khartoum International Airport and the airport at Juba, sometimes closed during rainy periods because of runway conditions. After the 1986 drought, which caused major problems at regional airports, the government launched a program to improve runways, to be funded locally. Aeronautical communications and navigational aids were minimal and at some airports relatively primitive. Only Khartoum International Airport was equipped with modern operational facilities, but by the early 1990s, Khartoum and seven other airports had paved runways. In the mid-1970s, IDA and the Saudi Development Fund agreed to make funds available for construction of new airports at Port Sudan and Waw, reconstruction and improvement of the airport at Malakal, and substantial upgrading of the Juba airport; these four airports accounted for almost half of domestic traffic. Because the civil war resumed, improvements were made only at Port Sudan. Juba airport runways were rebuilt by a loan from the European Development Fund, but the control tower and navigational equipment remained incomplete.
During the early 1970s, port traffic averaged about 3 million tons a year, compared with an overall capacity of about 3.8 million tons. Exports were somewhat more than 1 million tons and imports about 2 million tons; about half of the latter was petroleum and petroleum products. By the mid-1970s, stepped up economic development had raised traffic to capacity levels. In 1985, however, largely as a result of the civil war, exports were down to 663 thousand tons (down 51% from the previous year) and imports were 2.3 million tons (down 25% from the previous year). Physical expansion of the harbor and adjacent areas was generally precluded by natural features and the proximity of the city of Port Sudan. However, surveys showed that use could be increased considerably by modernization and improvement of existing facilities and the addition of further cargo-handling equipment. In 1978, with the assistance of a loan from the IDA, work began on adding deep-water berths and providing roll-on-roll-off container facilities. A loan to purchase equipment was made by a West Germany body. The first phase was completed in 1982, and the second phase began in 1983, aided by a US$25-million World Bank credit. One of the major improvements has been to make the port more readily usable by road vehicles. Developed almost entirely as a rail-serviced facility, the port had large areas of interlacing railroad tracks that were mostly not flush with surrounding surfaces, thereby greatly restricting vehicular movement. Many of these tracks have been removed and new access roads constructed. Much of the cleared area has become available for additional storage facilities.
In the early 1980s, the Nimeiri government announced a plan to construct a new deep-water port at Sawakin, about twenty kilometers south of Port Sudan. Construction of a new port had long been under consideration in response to the projected growth of port traffic in the latter part of the twentieth century. A detailed study for the proposed port was made by a West German firm in the mid-1970s, and plans were drawn up for three general cargo berths, including roll-on-roll-off container facilities, and an oil terminal. Major funding for the port, known as Sawakin, was offered in 1985 by West Germany's development agency Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau and the DFC. After the Nimeiri government repeatedly postponed work on the port, the German government allocated the funds instead for purchase of agricultural inputs. Once work resumed, however, Sawakin port opened in January 1991, and was capable of handling an estimated 1.5 million tons of cargo a year.
A national merchant marine, Sudan Shipping Line, was established in 1962 as a joint venture between the government and Yugoslavia. In 1967 it became wholly government owned. From the initial two Yugoslav-built cargo vessels, the line had grown by the mid-1970s to seven ships, totaling about 52,340 deadweight tons. During 1979 and early 1980, eight more ships were added, including six built in Yugoslavia and two in Denmark. In 1990 the merchant marine consisted of ten ships of 122,200 deadweight tons. The Yugoslav vessels were all multipurpose and included container transport features. The Danish ships were equipped with roll-on-roll-off facilities. Sailings, which had been mainly between Red Sea ports and northern Europe, were expanded in the late 1980s to several Mediterranean ports.
By the early 1970s, operational problems on the Port SudanKhartoum section of Sudan Railways had resulted in inadequate supplies of petroleum products reaching Khartoum and other parts of the country. In 1975 construction of an oil pipeline from the port to Khartoum was begun to relieve traffic pressure on the railroad. It was completed in mid-1976, but leaks were discovered and the 815-kilometer-long pipeline, laid generally parallel to the railroad, did not become operational until September 1977. As constructed, its capacity was 600,000 tons a year, but that throughput was only attained in mid-1981. In early 1982, steps were taken to add additional booster pumping stations to increase the rate to an annual throughput capacity of 1 million tons. The line carried only refined products, including gasoline, gas oil, kerosene, and aviation fuel obtained either from the refinery at the port or from import-holding facilities there. These fuels were moved in a continuous operation to storage tanks at Khartoum with some capacity offloaded at Atbarah. Rail tank cars released by the pipeline were reassigned to increase supplies of petroleum products in the western and southwestern regions of the country.