Railway transport has played a crucial role in the development of Tanzania since its introduction during the colonial era. The country’s railway network spans over 3,500 kilometers and connects major towns and cities in Tanzania, as well as neighboring countries such as Zambia, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Burundi. In this article, we will discuss the importance of railway transport in Tanzania.
Tanzania has a total of 3,676km of railway lines operated by two railway systems, Tanzania Railways Corporation (TRC) and Tanzania – Zambia Railways (TAZARA). The mainline of TRC comprises the Central Corridor, a meter gauge railway (MGR) connecting the port of Dar es Salaam in the east with central and western areas of the country and terminating at Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika in the west. The TAZARA line is 1,860 km in length, of which 975 km is in Tanzania and 885 km in Zambia.
The state-owned TRC (Tanzania Railway Corporation) has been offering a train connection between Moshi (the city at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro) and Dar es Salaam since December 2019 for the first time in 25 years. The train, which has a capacity of up to 700 passengers, will provide safe and comfortable transport twice a week.
A large portion of today’s narrow-gauge railway was originally built as the ‘Usamabara Railway‘ during the German colonial period and connected the important coastal town of Tanga with Arusha and Moshi. Even today, remnants such as old train stations or water cranes for steam locomotives can still be seen in some places, currently TRC uses diesel locomotives.
We recommend this train connection especially to railway enthusiasts and travellers with enough time – for the approximately 500 kilometres the train needs between 12 and 16 hours. Bookings can be made via the TRC online portal https://booking.trc.co.tz/. Tickets in 2nd class cost 23.500 TSH (approx. 8 Euro), the most expensive category are tickets for 2nd class sleeping cars for 39.100 (approx. 16 Euro). We recommend early booking, the tickets are sold out very quickly.
Apart from TAZARA, the Central Line (known as Mittellandbahn in German) is the most crucial rail line in the country and was originally called the Tanganyika Railway (German: Tanganjikabahn). It connects Dar es Salaam and Kigoma on the shores of Lake Tanganyika through Dodoma. A separate branch connects to Mwanza on the shores of Lake Victoria.
Tanzania commenced construction of the Tanzania Standard Gauge Railway in 2017, which would connect Dar es Salaam to Mwanza through a standard gauge (1435 millimeters) railwaya line parallel to a 1000mm meter gauge Central Line, with a new branch heading northwest to Kigali from Isaka.
The Central Line connects the Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam on the Indian Ocean with the country’s current capital, Dodoma, in the country’s center, and continues to Kigoma, Tanzania’s most significant port on Lake Tanganyika’s shore. It entirely circumnavigates central Tanzania spanning 1,254 km (779 miles) and surpasses the height of the East African rift valley‘s east side. Dar es Salaam, Morogoro, Ruvu, Kilosa, Manyoni, Dodoma, Kailua, and Tabora are the major stations on this route.
The Tazara Railway, also called the Uhuru Railway or the Tanzam Railway, is a railway in East Africa linking the port of Dar es Salaam in east Tanzania with the town of Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia’s Central Province. The single-track railway is 1,860 km (1,160 mi) long and is operated by the Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority (TAZARA).
The governments of Tanzania, Zambia, and the People’s Republic of China built the railway to eliminate landlocked Zambia’s economic dependence on Rhodesia and South Africa, both of which were ruled by white-minority governments. The railway provided the only route for bulk trade from Zambia’s Copperbelt to reach the sea without having to transit white-ruled territories. The spirit of Pan-African socialism among the leaders of Tanzania and Zambia and the symbolism of China’s support for newly independent African countries gave rise to Tazara’s designation as the “Great Uhuru Railway”, Uhuru being the Swahili word for freedom.
Running some 1,860 km (1,160 mi) from Tanzania’s largest city, Dar es Salaam, on the coast of the Indian Ocean to Kapiri Mposhi, near the Copperbelt of central Zambia, the Tazara is sometimes regarded as the greatest engineering effort of its kind since World War II. The railway crosses Tanzania in a southwest direction, leaving the coastal strip and then entering largely uninhabited areas of the vast Selous Game Reserve. The line crosses the Tanzam Highway at Makambako and runs parallel to the highway toward Mbeya and the Zambian border, before entering Zambia, and linking with Zambia Railways at Kapiri Mposhi.
Tanzania Railway Transport - FAQs
The Tazara Railway runs from Dar Es Salaam to Kapiri Mposhi, along an 1860km route.
Passing through the vast plains of Tanzania, your journey will lead you through the biggest game reserve in Africa – Selous Game Reserve – which covers an area larger than the Netherlands. The train then winds its way up into Western Tanzania and the mountains region of Mbeya before descending and crossing the border into Zambia and arriving at the trains final stop – Kapiri.
In total, the express passenger train (known as the Mukuba Express) stops at about 12-20 stations. Tazara’s website also mentions a longer cross-country route on their “ordinary train”, via about 60 stations.
This whole route should take between 2-3 days, but relying on a definite schedule can be a bit tricky since the trains are often delayed (more details on what to expect from the journey can be found below).
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The main reason we call this route legendary is because of its mildly hazardous, unpredictable identity
Each trip aboard the Tazara is a throw of the dice. Once the train pulls out from the station, it’s hard to know what lies in store for Tazara passengers…
Perhaps your ride will be smooth, relaxing and drama-free. Maybe the most excitement you’ll get is spotting a load of cute Zebras munching on shrubs track-side.
On the other hand, in the dead of night, maybe the train will suddenly jolt to stop because a herd of elephants have been spotted up ahead and are blocking the tracks (#truestory). Or perhaps the train might even break-down mid-journey and you’ll be stranded in the middle of nowhere for hours on end(#alsotruestory).
As far as train journeys go, this railway has come to have a rather infamous reputation.
The internet is full of tales about Tazara journeys gone wrong. And while the locals are pretty used to breakdowns and not-so-smooth-rides, Tazara first-timers are not.
Definitely don’t be put off by the prospect of something possibly going wrong on the Tazara!
There are many things that make this route exceptional and in the spirit of adventure we say hop aboard to find out what your own Tazara experience entails.
Activate a “go-with-the-flow” mentality and don’t allow your African adventure be derailed by videos with crazy titles like this one:
The founding fathers of the railway are Zambia and Tanzania’s first post-independence leaders, Kaunda and Nyerere. Their idea was to build a line that could be used to transport minerals and resources between East and Southern Africa (especially from Zambia’s copperbelt).
The line came to be known as Uhuru Railway, or Freedom Railway, although it has also gained a bunch of other nicknames like TaZa Rail and Tanzam Railway.
Funded by the Chinese (who also helped construct the line),the track was completed in 1975 and marked China’s first development project in Africa. In today’s terms the project cost the equivalent of $2.71 billion.
Since the 1970s, the Chinese have built railways across different parts of Africa and many of those lines operate with a strict on-the-dot schedule. The Tazara is one line that has retained its own idiosyncratic identity: it doesn’t always leave on time, it pulls up to stations late, and sometimes – things break down.
Now that we’ve warned of the possible things that might go wrong – what about the things that will go right?
Here are some fantastic things to look forward to before making this journey:
🦒 Wildlife & beautiful scenery
- The scenery is one of the biggest things that make this Africa’s best and most underrated train journey. The fact the train moves pretty slowly allows you ample time to take everything in.
- Peeking up from a book, imagine gazing out your cabin window at an endless conveyor belt of landscapes while you make your way across the continent. Don’t even get us started on the sunsets and sunrises you’ll witness!
- The fact you travel through a game reserve makes the Tazara a bit of a safari train, so keep your eyes peeled for wildlife.
🥭 Hot meals & snacks on your journey
- Hot food is also served on board at meal times and will cost between €1 – €18 per meal. There is also a small train bar that sells bottled water and other drinks.
- During the three-days they’ll be plenty of snack stops. Each time the train reaches a station Mama Ntilies approach the carriages outside with plastic bowls full of colourful fruit balanced on their heads. Reaching down, you can buy whatever takes your fancy.
😴 Bunk beds in the First Class compartments
- You might be wondering what the Tazara train compartments look like and which class you should book. We say 100% go for the First Class ticket. Since this is a sleeper train, First Class will get you a small cabin with two bunk beds. It’s basic but comfortable.