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Old January 16th, 2008, 07:23 AM   #1
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Madagascar's sole passenger train: economic lifeline, at risk

MANAKARA, Madagascar, Jan 15, 2008 (AFP) - Madagascar's only passenger railway is an economic lifeline for dozens of isolated mountain villages set back from the coast and more and more tourists are falling for its old-world charm.

However, the ageing line that runs through stunning mountain scenery is facing an uncertain future -- at a time when poor but resource rich Madagascar is struggling to turn around its dismal economy and boost a potentially lucrative tourism sector.

The line, built between 1926 and 1936 when the Indian Ocean island was a French colony, is "key for thousands of people who live up to 50 kilometres away from the main road," said Louis-Francois Andrianarison, stationmaster in the east coast town of Manakara, one of the terminuses.

Carrying freight, ordinary Malagasy people and tourists in three separate cars, the 163-kilometre (100-mile) Fianarantsoa-East Coast (FCE) line is one of only two rail lines in Madagascar, and the only one with passenger cars.

"The line is good even if the equipment is old," said a proud Seth Honore Randriaramanana, who runs its second-hand engine shipped here in 1979 but which he says is even older.

On this particular Sunday, a felled tree hampered the train's advance. Passengers had already held out for four hours after its scheduled departure time was delayed, but the dozens of first-class tourists did not complain. Several got off the train to take pictures of the tracks being cleared.

Up to this day, there is virtually no other way of shipping fruits and vegetables to Fianarantsoa, a town 240 kilometres (150 miles) south of the capital Antananarivo, or rice and products made on the elevated plain around the city to the isolated areas along the line.

"It gets really busy during the litchi harvest" at the end of November, said Frederic Randrianaraso who is in charge of loading and unloading the freight car. "In general, the trip takes eight hours, but during the harvest loading takes up more time."

At each of the 17 scheduled stops, hawkers and the curious wait for the train to arrive three times a week.

"Between the scenery and the ambiance in the stations, the trip is fabulous," Stephane Jullien, a traveller in his thirties raved, taken aback by the fact that Madagascar's "only train would run in such a forbidding area."

The train has survived political, technological and other storms. In 1991, a major political crisis shut down the rail service, in 1995-96 an engine was lost in a derailment, and in 2000, cyclones severely damaged the tracks.

But the line reopened each time.

Now its future looks bleak because it is not profitable -- in a country with many demands on any available funds. Nearly two-thirds of Madagascar's 17 million people live in abject poverty, with the country ranked among the world's 30 most impoverished nations in terms of human development.

And the government has set poverty reduction as a priority.

"The World Bank would have to invest 11 million euros (16 million dollars) to modernise it if we can show that the line is viable and useful," said Faly Andriamampiadana, head of Madagascar's transport authority.

But the government "has promised to put the line out for tender," he said. And "the Chinese and the South Africans have already shown they're interested."

Madagascar's only other railway, a freight line, runs from the capital Antananarivo to Toamasina, the country's chief port.

And in December the Indo-Madagascar Chamber of commerce and industry (IMCOCI) proposed a third rail line for the country. The ambitious project would run the length of the country from north to south to "help the circulation of people and products, notably mining and agricultural resources," the chamber's president Azeez Arabathickal was quoted as saying in the local press.

But sceptics doubt this line will see the light of day anytime soon, since its path runs through areas that are not even linked by roads yet.

Madagascar's government is also keen on encouraging tourism, now hampered by low investment and poor infrastructure. The country hopes to tap into a windfall enjoyed by the neighbouring isles of Mauritius and Seychelles reputed for idyllic beaches could help.

Between 2001 to 2004, the country recorded a 35 percent increase in tourists from 230,000 to 310,000 foreign visitors and was hoping to boost that number to 500,000 by last year.

"Madagascar is rich in flora and fauna but we also have our 'little train', exclaimed Andriamampiadana.

"You don't find this anywhere else and tourists will certainly not do without it."
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