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Cement train at Moshi
Inaugural train carrying cement preparing to leave Moshi for Arusha,
on the occasion of the reopening of the line on 6 August 2020.

The very first railway in present day Tanzania was a 2ft (610mm) gauge line on the island of Zanzibar, opened in 1879 by the Sultan to connect his summer palace at Chukwani with Zanzibar town. Initially the Pullman cars were drawn by mules, but in 1881 a steam locomotive was purchased. The line closed in 1888 on the death of the Sultan. A public railway opened on the island in 1905, closing in 1930.

The first railway on the mainland (German East Africa) was opened in 1893 between the Indian Ocean port of Tanga and a point near Mombo, serving Wilhelmstal (present day Lushoto) in the Usambara Highlands, a distance of 108km. In line with then current German practice for light railways, it was constructed to metre gauge, as were most later railways in the country.

One little known railway opened in 1949 in connection with a groundnut planting scheme at Nachingwea in the south of the country. A 100 mile (160km) railway was built from Nachingwea to a new port facility at Mtwara, specially built for the export of nuts and oil. Given the failure of earlier groundnut schemes, the experiment may be seen as somewhat surprising and, indeed, production of groundnuts quickly gave way to cashew nuts. Later, there were flirtations with growing soybeans and sesame seeds before the scheme, and the railway, was finally abandoned in 1962. The tracks were recovered and used to provide a previously missing link between the Central main line and the Tanga line.

A major new development took place in 1975 with the opening of the TAZARA line from Kapiri Mposhi in northern Zambia to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. This prestigious 1850km railway was motivated in part by continued civil unrest in Angola and the Congo, which had resulted in the Benguela Railway being severed at the Zambian frontier. The new line was built to the Zambian gauge of 3ft 6in (1067mm), as its principal function was to allow exports from Zambia to reach the port of Dar. The line is owned by the states of Tanzania and Zambia and operated by a joint corporation.

The metre gauge main line from Dar es Salaam to Kigoma remains open, with branches to Mpanda and Mwanza. The Northern Line from Dar to Tanga, Moshi and Arusha closed in the 1980s but reopened in 2019/2020, except for a short section leading to the Kenyan border at Taveta, where there was formerly link to the Kenyan Railways system. A branch from the main line at Kilosa runs to Kidatu, where there is freight transhipment to and from TAZARA. Transhipment at Dar is impractical owing to the distance between the two stations there (about 8km).

In 2017, construction began on a new standard (1435mm) gauge railway crossing the country and intended eventually to replace the metre gauge network. Phase 1, 302km from Dar es Salaam to Morogoro, was completed in 2022. Work on phase 2, 348 km from Morogoro and Makutupora was reported in early 2022 to be 80% complete. Work commenced in 2021 on phase 3, 294km from Makutopora and Tabora plus 74km of branches, and phase 5, 341km from Isaka to Mwanza on the shores of Lake Victoria. A contract for phase 4, 130 km from Tabora to Isaka was signed in 2022.

In 2018, funding was agreed for a branch of the standard gauge railway from Isaka to Kigali, Rwanda. It is expected to be built in two sections, Isaka to Rusumo (371km)

Also in 2018, expressions of interest were invited for construction of a 30km branch of the standard gauge railway from Dar es Salaam to a new port at Bagamoyo; and for a commuter rail service serving Dodoma, a city which is growing in size since becoming the national capital, replacing Dar es Salaam.

In 2022, a memorandum of understanding was signed for the construction of a 282km standard gauge railway from Uvinza, on the planned line from Tabora to Kigoma, to Gitega in Burundi.

Also in 2022, a contract was let for the construction of a 506km standard gauge railway continuing the line now under construction at Tabora to Kigoma on the shore of lake Tanganyika, replacing the existing metre gauge railway. A 210km branch from Kaliua to Mpanda, similarly replacing a metre gauge line, is proposed for the future, as is a 106km extension of the latter line from Mpanda to a port now under construction at Karema.

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Photo image from Global Publishers, Tanzania