Gabon hopes to expand its well-protected port and add a significant freight rail line to help move the country’s chief products—oil, iron ore, and timber—more efficiently. Wikimedia Commons/Photo by Brian Ecton
A huge iron ore mine, a 600 km rail line, and an upgraded port could change the face of the West African nation.
July 8, 2014—At the 33rd annual conference for the World Association for Waterborne Transport Infrastructure, or PIANC, held earlier this summer in San Francisco, Michel Thomet, Ph.D., the manager of facility simulation for San Francisco-based Bechtel gave a presentation about the possible expansion of Port-Gentil, Gabon. The main port in the small West African nation of 1.5 million people, Port-Gentil could be the lynchpin in a massive overhaul of the country’s infrastructure—connecting a potentially lucrative iron ore mine, via a new rail line, to the sea and markets abroad.
Bechtel is conducting a feasibility study of developing the rail line and expanding the port. The study should be complete next year. “Things are moving,” Thomet says. “We have pressure from the government to start getting things moving.”
Tiny Port-Gentil is Gabon’s second largest city and the center of its oil and timber industries. The area is essentially a very small peninsula that juts into the Atlantic. The city and the port are on the sheltered, east side of the peninsula. A potential rail line would go onto the west side of the peninsula, along with the marshaling yard. “There is room to bring in the railroad without impacting the city,” he says. The government has created a special economic zone just north of the city to attract investors.
The port itself is accessible and well sheltered, possessing a deep natural harbor that requires no breakwaters or dredging. Within 1,000 m of the shore the water depth drops to 20 m. But it’s also isolated from the mainland. “The railroad will make a very big impact on the growth of Port-Gentil and the port operations,” Thomet says.
Port-Gentil actually encompasses several different ports. One berth services large supertankers devoted to exporting crude oil and importing refined oil products. There’s a commercial port that has two berths for container ships—10 m deep and 400 m long—that serves the local city. There’s a port that serves as the logistics base for the country’s offshore oil platforms and barges. And there is a berth for ferries to Libreville. There’s also a port dedicated to exporting timber.
Thomet says that the proposed rail link would have a beneficial impact across the port’s services. The container terminal would likely be expanded to receive larger ships. Faster passenger ferries could reach the center of Libreville in only a few hours. “By adding a railroad line and connecting it to the mainland you open up all kinds of new possibilities for the port and the city to expand,” says Thomet.
Because many African ports in this part of the continent don’t have good depth, the Gabonese port has the potential to become a hub for several nearby countries. Bechtel has built 28 ports worldwide in the past 10 years, Thomet says. But the future of this port depends on the Belinga mine, a massive iron ore deposit hundreds of kilometers away, as well as the rail line that would link the two. The reserves, first discovered in 1895, are estimated to contain about one billion tons of iron ore. An ore body assessment study of the mine is under way—and a report about the true size of the iron deposits and its potential for development is due to be released in a few months.
The rail link from the mine to the port would be more than 600 km long, and building it won’t be easy. The country is covered with a dense tropical forest and possesses many national parks and nature reserves that would have to be protected. The ore deposits are located near the Invindo National Park, famous for its scenic waterfall. “The alignment of the rail will have to be carefully chosen,” says Thomet, “not just from the economic point of view but from the national point of view.”
Toward the coast the railway would cross another line that transports manganese, then would enter the Ogooue River delta. Here the train will have to pass through fairly marshy land, necessitating concrete-based platforms, as well as a few bridges over the arms of the delta, Thomet says.
Once the mine report is released, the government can select a concessionaire to run the mine. The railroad could start construction next year, and the process could take four or five years. Fortunately, by that time the mine would also be ready. In the meantime, the individual ports will be expanded, though that is not expected to take as much time.
Bechtel first conducted work in Gabon under former president Omar Bongo in 1983, when the company carried out some economic studies. Bongo’s son, Ali Bongo Ondimba, served in the government, too, and when he became president in 2009, he asked Bechtel to help aid the country further. The company has entered into a unique relationship with the Gabonese government—Bechtel has helped established the Agence Nationale de Grands Travaux (ANGT), or national agency for major projects, and has completed an infrastructure master plan for the entire country. “We’re training the Gabonese to be able to track and manage major projects with good transparency and techniques to make sure projects are delivered on time and on schedule,” says Thomet. “As a result, we’re involved in a lot of projects.”