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Land grants in Africa’s quest for railways

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Insights from George Kaulbeck, CPCS Head of Transport Advisory on land grants: the potential to bridge the financial gap needed for railway expansion in Africa.

In this article:

Traditional railway financing isn’t enough

In its quest for more and better railways, a big obstacle stands in Africa’s way, and that’s the scarcity of financing.

For George Kaulbeck, an engineer, and senior transportation advisor at CPCS, “Africa can’t rely on traditional financing alone. Land grants provide a unique avenue to attract investments crucial for railway expansion.”

These land grants serve as a potent incentive, drawing much needed investments to put Africa’s railway on track.

Have land grants proven their effectiveness? Yes, they have.

Map of railway lines around the world. Source:

Land grants drive railway development worldwide

The efficacy of land grants isn’t a novel concept; it’s a historical force that has driven railway development globally.

Over a century ago, the Canadian Pacific Railway received a staggering 25 million acres of land, catalyzing the construction of the transcontinental railway and transforming Canadian transportation.

“Land grants have a proven track record, shaping railway projects, nations and connecting communities,” says Kaulbeck.

In the United States, the Pacific Railway Acts of the 1860s provided land grants to vitalize the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads, contributing to the extensive railway network we know today. Australia, Brazil, and Argentina experienced railway booms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, all propelled by the strategic use of land grants.

Kaulbeck underscores the enduring relevance of land grants: “If they were common back then, they are still relevant today—very much so.”

Land grants along railway lines in western USA from the late 1800s. Source: Unknown

Financial edge for rail developers

The financial advantages for rail developers are evident, George notes.

  • Enhanced creditworthiness: Developers gain tangible assets through land grants, strengthening their position when seeking loans. This leads to more favourable lending terms, reduced financial risk, and increased opportunities to secure essential funds.
  • Offsetting construction costs: The immediate funds generated from the sale or lease of granted land effectively offset construction expenses. This financial injection enhances the overall financial viability of railway projects, ensuring smoother progress and timely completion. As a result, land grants emerge as pivotal catalysts for developers, providing the financial leverage necessary to navigate the complex landscape of railway development.

However, challenges and risks loom, requiring meticulous navigation. “Land tenure issues, environmental impacts, regulatory challenges, and social acceptance need careful attention.”

Sure, land grants are good financial incentives, but they’re much more than that.  

Land grants for societal and economic progress

Land grants are also a lever in creating communities. Along railway routes, land grants stimulate settlement and economic growth, transforming developers into catalysts for community expansion.

George’s perspective extends to the broader impact: “Land grants contribute to nation-building and regional connectivity as they often unveil untapped economic potential in previously isolated regions.”

These multifaceted benefits underscore the profound impact of land grants in facilitating not only railway development but also broader societal and economic progress.

Modernizing railway development with land grants

The integration of traditional land grants with modern financing models for railway development presents a resilient framework that caters to the diverse requirements of today’s projects.

These adaptable grants align with modern objectives, strategically moulded to complement evolving financing goals, addressing contemporary challenges and opportunities in railway development.

By incorporating land grants into public-private partnerships (PPPs), collaboration between public and private entities is stimulated. This approach not only fosters private investment but also leverages the efficiency and innovation of modern business practices, ensuring sustainable project development.

Furthermore, monetizing land through innovative approaches, such as securitization, makes land grants an integral part of project financing. Future cash flows from land development contribute significantly to the project’s sustainability and financial stability.

Additionally, land grants promote green financing, aligning with eco-friendly railway projects and attracting investments that support sustainable development goals by incorporating environmentally conscious practices.

This innovative approach has the potential to reshape the future of railway development in Africa.

Benefits of land grants

Strategically harnessing land grants promises a multitude of advantages:

Unlocking financial viability:

  • By offering tangible assets, land grants enhance creditworthiness and ease access to loans. This solid financial foundation entices investments and diminishes financial obstacles for railway projects.

Stimulating economic activities:

  • Land grants invigorate settlement and economic undertakings along railway routes, cultivating local economies and presenting communities with fresh prospects.

Attracting private investment:

  • The allure of land development opportunities captivates investors. This creates a mutually beneficial scenario, drawing private investments and expertise to railway projects.

Regional connectivity and unity:

  • Land grants play a pivotal role in enhancing regional connectivity, fostering unity, and promoting economic cooperation. They serve as instrumental contributors to the nation-building process, uniting diverse communities in collective progress.

Hurdles and risks in implementing land grants for African railways

Addressing the hurdles and risks associated with land grants for African railway development is of utmost importance. Key considerations encompass:

Land tenure and ownership issues:

  • African nations often face complex land tenure and ownership challenges. Dealing with these issues requires creating clear legal frameworks to ensure fair and transparent land allocation.

Environmental and cultural considerations:

  • Land grants may present potential risks to the environment and cultural heritage if not thoughtfully managed. Comprehensive environmental impact assessments and robust community engagement are imperative to guarantee the sustainability of development efforts.

Infrastructure and regulatory challenges:

  • Developing railway infrastructure often entails navigating through complex regulatory landscapes. Streamlining these regulatory processes is critical to avert delays and ensure the punctual execution of projects.

Political and social acceptance:

  • The endorsement of land grants by political and social entities can significantly influence the success of railway projects. Fostering transparent communication and obtaining public support are essential steps in mitigating resistance and achieving project goals.

The path forward for land grants

Some big steps to build momentum and secure support for land grants, include:

Establish collaborative working groups: Mobilizing government officials, private sector representatives, and financial experts are crucial. These working groups should promote open dialogue, collective exploration of the potential benefits of land grants.

Preliminary feasibility assessments: They are key to help determine the suitability of land grants for specific railway projects. These assessments are a crucial first step in gaining support and understanding the feasibility of the concept.

Engage with stakeholders inclusively: Including voices from government bodies, private sector organizations, and local communities, is essential. This engagement focuses on social acceptability, building awareness and obtaining initial support for integrating land grants into railway development.

Bet on legal clarity: Exploratory discussions on the legal and regulatory frameworks required for land grants are vital. These discussions pave the way for future developments as the concept gains traction, ensuring transparency, and adherence to legal standards.


George Kaulbeck is Partner and Global Director of Transportation at CPCS and has led or worked on railway assignments in Africa for almost 20 years.  

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