The Dakar-Niger railway line links two of west Africa's capital cities and crosses 1233 kilometres of arid landscape filled with baobab trees and low grasses, scrub and bush. But deep in the ground of the border region of western Mali and eastern Senegal there are enormous riches of gold, phosphates and iron ore, one of the minerals used to make steel. With global demand for iron ore from booming nations such as India, China and Brazil, still high despite the world economic slow-down, these untapped resources hold great value and the governments of Senegal and Mali are keen to get these goods to the outside world.
The only thing linking the rich lands of this border region and the outside world is a train line which was laid more than one hundred years ago and, considering the wear on a piece of transport infrastructure such as this, should have already been replaced at least once. But lack of investment and complications brought about by the fact that the rail runs between two different countries with two different legal systems, economic agendas and socio-political situations, means that the rail, as strategic and vital to the region's economy as it is, is the same one that was laid by French colonisers in the early 20th century. And because of this, the wagons carrying iron ore- a heavy mineral- from the mines to the port in Dakar, can only run one third full. “If the railway line was in a good state,” says Djibril Keita, secretary general of Transrail at his office in Bamako, “we could double exports”.