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Trans-Saharan Railway - Early 20th Century

The Geographical Congress, in session at Algiers in 1899, made a great demonstration in favor of the construction of the trans-Sahara railroad. The agreement with Great Britain on the subject of Africa, which practically recognized the entire Sahara Desert as a French sphere, led to a revival of the project for the construction of a railroad across the desert to Timbuctoo, placing France's possessions on the Mediterranean shore in communication with her colonies on the Niger. Lord Kitchener solved the problem of railroading across the desert in the Soudan by showing that, providing one bores deep enough, one can always find water there, and it was presumed that absence of water had constituted the chief obstacle to the execution of the project of the Sahara railroad.

It was needless to point out the tremendous advantage which would accrue both from a commercial and strategical point of view to France in the possession of a railroad from Algiers to her possessions on the Niger and on the Congo, all the more as Timbuctoo was the junction of all the great caravan roads that crossed the Sahara, and a railroad passing there would practically control the entire desert trade.

By 1900 there was renewed interest in the matter, and a Paris newspaper, the Matin, sent out an expedition to complete the work of Flatters. By then the question to be decided was: From what point should the new road take its departure? Algiers possessed a railway system, some of whose branches by 1900 touched the confines of the Sahara. Biskra, already connected with Philippeville on the Mediterranean by a line through Constantine, seemed to be the place most favored. From here the road would run almost due south to Timassinin and Amguid, about 1,100 kilometers from Philippeville, and on the watershed between the Mediterranean and the Niger. At Ainguid the road would divide, the main line going east of south toward Lake Tchad, and a branch running southwest to Bouroum, at the bend of the Niger. As far as the watershed there seemed to be but few engineering difficulties. For long stretches there is a grade of only onetenth of one per cent., and the divide can be crossed at an altitude of 650 meters.

As late as the end of the 19th Century there was as yet little positive information about the southern slope toward the Niger and Lake Tchad, but initially most attention would be paid to the northern section of the road as far as Timassinin and Amguid, which were important markets and caravan stations. It was estimated that this section could be completed in two years.

As to the amount of traffic that can be counted on, it is pointed out that the inhabitants of the Sahara got their supplies from Tripoli. As of 1900 the cost of transporting a ton of merchandise on camel's back from the latter city to In-Salah. in the Touat region, is from 1,300 to 1,400 francs, and the journey takes from forty-five to fifty days. If the railroad were built, Timassinin could be reached from Philippeville in three or four days, and a ton of freight could be transported for about 60 francs. Freight for InSalah would have to be forwarded by camel from Timassinin at a total cost of 550 francs by this route, against 1.300 francs for the all-camel line. This difference would necessarily make Timassinin a great center of trade in the Sahara, and, as the road is extended southward it will tap other caravan routes and build up a large import and export business, the total receipts being estimated at 6,265,000 francs per annum. When the road reaches the Soudan it would make an outlet for the rich products of that region, some of which are ivory, ostrich feathers, gold dust, hides and leather, india rubber, coffee, cocoa, pepper, palm oil, and precious woods.

The length of the main line from Biskra to Lake Tchad will be about 3,100 kilometres, and it is estimated that receipts amounting to 10,000 francs per kilometre - 620 or $3,100 per mile - can be counted upon from the total freight and passenger traffic of the Sahara and the Soudan, while it is claimed that the fixed charges and operating expenses will be only 2,500 francs per kilometer 155 or $775 per mile.

By 1912 the Trans-Sahara Railway, preparations for which had been somewhat lagging in consequence of the lack of public encouragement, merged into far more promising scheme -- that of a trans-African line, traversing the entire continent, from Oran, Algeria, to the Cape. Nothing came of this plan, and soon the Great War intervened.

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Page last modified: 26-10-2011 18:37:06 ZULU