Transport in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Transport in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Diagrammatic Map of ground and water transport in the DR Congo in 2000 (roads) and 2006 (waterways and railways)

Ground transport in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has always been difficult. The terrain and climate of the Congo Basin present serious barriers to road and rail construction, and the distances are enormous across this vast country. Furthermore, chronic economic mismanagement and internal conflict has led to serious under-investment over many years.

On the other hand, the DRC has thousands of kilometres of navigable waterways, and traditionally water transport has been the dominant means of moving around approximately two-thirds of the country.


Transport problems

As an illustration of transport difficulties in the DRC, even before wars damaged the infrastructure, the so-called "national" route, used to get supplies to Bukavu from the seaport of Matadi, consisted of the following:

In other words, goods had to be loaded and unloaded eight times and the total journey would take many months.

Many of the routes listed below are in poor condition and may be operating at only a fraction of their original capacity (if at all), despite recent attempts to make improvements. Up to 2006 the United Nations Joint Logistics Centre (UNJLC) had an operation in Congo to support humanitarian relief agencies working there, and its bulletins and maps about the transport situation are archived on the UNJLC web site.

The First and Second Congo Wars saw great destruction of transport infrastructure from which the country has not yet recovered. Many vehicles were destroyed or commandeered by militias, especially in the north and east of the country, and the fuel supply system was also badly affected. Consequently, outside of Kinshasa, Matadi and Lubumbashi, private and commercial road transport is almost non-existent and traffic is scarce even where roads are in good condition. The few vehicles in use outside these cities are run by the United Nations, aid agencies, the DRC government, and a few larger companies such as those in the mining and energy sectors. It is notable that high-resolution satellite photos on the Internet show large cities such as Bukavu, Butembo and Kikwit virtually devoid of traffic, compared to similar photos of towns in neighbouring countries.[1]

Air transport is the only effective means of moving between many places within the country. The Congolese government, the United Nations, aid organisations and large companies use air rather than ground transport to move personnel and freight. The UN operates a large fleet of aircraft and helicopters, and compared to other African countries the DRC has a large number of small domestic airlines and air charter companies. The transport (and smuggling) of minerals with a high value for weight is also carried out by air, and in the east, some stretches of paved road isolated by destroyed bridges or impassable sections have been turned into airstrips.

For the ordinary citizen though, especially in rural areas, often the only options are to cycle, walk or go by dugout canoe.

Some parts of the DRC are more accessible from neighbouring countries than from Kinshasa. For example Bukavu itself and Goma and other north-eastern towns are linked by paved road from the DRC border to the Kenyan port of Mombasa, and most goods for these cities have been brought via this route in recent years. Similarly, Lubumbashi and the rest of Katanga Province is linked to Zambia, through which the paved highway and rail networks of Southern Africa can be accessed. Such links through neighbouring countries are generally more important for the east and south-east of the country, and are more heavily used, than surface links to the capital.

Major infrastructure programs

In 2007 China agreed to lend the DRC US$5bn for two major transport infrastructure projects to link mineral-rich Katanga, specifically Lubumbashi, by rail to an ocean port (Matadi) and by road to the Kisangani river port, and to improve its links to the transport network of Southern Africa in Zambia. The two projects would also link the major parts of the country not served by water transport, and the main centres of the economy. Loan repayments will be from concessions for raw materials which China desperately needs: copper, cobalt, gold and nickel, as well as by toll revenues from the road and railway. In the face of reluctance by the international business community to invest in DRC, this represents a revitalisation of DRC's infrastructure much needed by its government.[2]

The China Railway Seventh Group Co. Ltd will be in charge of the contract, under signed by the China Railway Engineering Corporation, with construction to be started from June 2008.


Train from Lubumbashi arriving in Kindu on newly refurbished line

The national system is mostly operated by the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer du Congo (SNCC). Not all rail lines link up, but are generally connected by river transport. The rail systems are listed below.[3][4][5]

  • Matadi-Kinshasa Railway: From Matadi Harbour to Kinshasa via Songolo, Kimpese, Mbanza-Ngungu and Kasangulu, operated by ONATRA, 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) gauge, originally constructed as 750 mm (2 ft 5 12 in) gauge;[6] three trains a week.[7] This line is a bypass of the Livingstone Falls on the Congo River, known as a portage railway. Upstream from the Kinshasa river port, water transport reaches about two-thirds of the country. The line lost traffic to road transport when the Matadi-Kinshasa road was re-established in 2000, and it is now planned to revitalise it with Chinese help.[8] An agreement was signed in July 2006 between ONATRA and a Chinese company (CMIC) which will renovate the track, trains, telecommunications, signal system and electric supply.
  • Vicicongo line: Bumba (Congo river port) - Aketi - Buta - Likati - Isiro - Mungbere, with branch lines to Bondo and Titule; 600 mm (1 ft 11 58 in) narrow gauge. This system is not operational, and was described by UNJLC in 2006 as 'very degraded'. A few trains ran in 2002/3.[9] The line is not mentioned in the UNJLC description of the network. That and its very narrow gauge suggest it may be abandoned.
  • Great lakes line first section: Kisangani (Congo River port) to Ubundu (upper Congo River port), 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 38 in).[10] This line is a bypass (portage railway) of the Stanley Falls on the Congo River. A train runs after arrival at Kisangani of a ship from Kinshasa or before departure of a ship to Kinshasa, which may happen about every 2 to 3 month, no fixed schedule. There is no connecting boat service between Ubundu and Kindu on the Lualaba River (the upper Congo).[11]
  • Great lakes line second section: Kindu (Lualaba River port) - Kibombo – Kongolo – Kabalo (Lualaba River port and junction with Katanga line) - Nyunzu – Niemba – Kalemie (the port on Lake Tanganika), 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in). This line was 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 38 in) gauge like the first section until 1955, when the gauge was changed for the connection with the Katanga line in 1956. Just north of Kongolo, the Lualaba is unnavigable due to the rapids named Portes D'Enfer ('Gates of Hell'). The track between Kalemie and Niemba is described by UNJLC in 2006 as 'very degraded' and may not be operational, although it has been travelled by tourists as recently as 2007.[12] Boats to Moba and Kalundu-Uvira on Lake Tanganyika used to connect with trains at Kalemie. In 1917 a train ferry was introduced on the lake operating from Kalemie, but is long gone.
  • Katanga line: Kabalo (Lualaba River port and junction with Great Lakes line) – Kamungu - Katumba – Kabongo (or a town 8 km south-east) – Kamina (junction with Kasia line) - Bukama (Lualaba River port) – Tenke (junction with Benguela Railway)- LikasiLubumbashi - Sakania - Zambia, 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in). There are a number of short branch lines in the mining areas between Tenke and Kolwezi. The section from near Kabongo to Kamina was described by UNJLC in 2006 as 'very degraded'.
  • Kasai line: Ilebo (Kasai River port) – Kananga – Mwene Ditu – Kaniama - Kamina (junction with Katanga line), 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in). This connects the Katanga line to the river port at Ilebo from where boats can reach Kinshasa. Freight is transferred to river barges, but in 2006 UNJLC reports the river service operates sporadically. On 1 August 2007 a passenger train ran out of control on the line 170 km north-west of Kananga and 7 coaches overturned, killing about 100 people.
  • Katanga-Benguela line: A branch of the Katanga Railway was built from Tenke junction just north-west of Likasi via Kolwezi to Dilolo at the Angolan border to connect with the Benguela Railway 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) from Luau to the Atlantic port of Lobito. This allowed through passenger trains to run between Lubumbashi and Lobito, and freight trains to carry copper from the Zambian and Katangan Copperbelts to a seaport for the export of copper. It was this purpose which provided the investment for the Benguela Railway. Unfortunately it has not operated through Angola since the 1970s, due to the civil war there. Currently the line between Kolwezi and Dilolo is described by UNJLC in 2006 as 'very degraded'.

The following lines have been completely removed and are not listed for future rehabilitation:

  • Mayumbe line: Boma to Tshela, 1889–1984, 610 mm (2 ft)  gauge,[6] removed in 1984.[13]
  • Kivu Railway: Kalundu-Uvira-Kamaniola (- Bukavu), 1931–1958, 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) gauge.[14]

Track totals

4772 km (2002), 5138 km (1995);
narrow gauge:

  • 3621 km 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) gauge (858 km electrified); (2002)
  • 125 km 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 38 in) gauge; (2002) ev. transformed to 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) gauge in 1955[15]
  • 1026 km 600 mm (1 ft 11 58 in) gauge (2002);
  • 3987 km 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) gauge (858 km electrified); (1996)

Railway links to adjacent countries

There is only one currently functioning international link:

This link is not operating:

  • Angola Angola - yes - same gauge - 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in), but link to the port of Benguela has been unusable since the 1970s.

There are boat links to rail lines in these neighbouring countries:

  • Republic of the Congo Republic of Congo - no direct link, but ordinary ferries across the Congo River from Kinshasa to Brazzaville can take passengers and freight to the Congo-Ocean Railway (same gauge 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in)) which runs from Brazzaville to the Atlantic port of Pointe Noire.
  • Tanzania Tanzania - no direct link but boats take freight between Kalemie and Kigoma, from where Tanzania's Central Line runs to the seaport of Dar es Salaam; there once was a train ferry from Kalemie built in 1917; break of gauge 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in)/1,000 mm (3 ft 3 38 in).

There are no rail links from the Congo to Sudan, Uganda, Central African Republic, Rwanda or Burundi.


Proposed rail projects

  • In September 2007 it was reported that China would provide US$5 billion for new infrastructure projects including rehabilitation and construction of new sections to link Sakania and Lubumbashi to Matadi (3200 km), to be completed in 3 years.[16]
  • A line from Uganda to Kasese was proposed in 2005.[17]


Stations served by rail


The Democratic Republic of the Congo has fewer all-weather paved highways than any country of its population and size in Africa — a total of 2250 km, of which only 1226 km is in good condition (see below). To put this in perspective, the road distance across the country in any direction is more than 2500 km (e.g. Matadi to Lubumbushi, 2700 km by road). The figure of 2250 km converts to 35 km of paved road per 1,000,000 of population. Comparative figures for Zambia (one of the poorest African countries) and Botswana (one of the richest) are 580 km and 3427 km respectively.[18]

The total road network in 2005, according to UNJLC:[19]-
total: 171,250 km
paved: 2,250 km
unpaved: 15,000 km
tracks 43,000 km
country roads 21,000 km
local roads or footpaths 90,000 km

However, a DRC government document[20] shows that, also in 2005, the network of main highways in good condition was as follows:
paved: 1,226 km
unpaved: 607 km

UNJLC also points out that the pre-Second Congo War network no longer exists, and is dependent upon 20,000 bridges and 325 ferries, most of which are in need of repair or replacement.

The 2000 Michelin Motoring and Tourist Map 955 of Southern and Central Africa, which categorises roads as surfaced, 'improved' (generally unsurfaced but with gravel added and graded), 'partially improved' and 'earth roads' and 'tracks' shows there were 2694 km of paved highway in 2000, indicating that, compared to the more recent figures above, rather than improving there has been a deterioration this decade.

UNJLC reports that, although the road network is theoretically divided into four categories (national roads, priority regional roads, secondary regional roads and local roads), this classification is of little practical use because some roads simply do not exist. For example, National Road 9 is not operational and cannot be detected by remote sensing methods.[19]

The two principal highways are:

  • National Road No. 1 connecting the Atlantic seaports with Kinshasa and southeast Katanga, the most important economic area of the country due to its copper and other mines.
  • National Road No. 2, Kisangani-BukavuGoma, connecting the principal waterway systems of the country, namely Kinshasa-Kisangani on the Congo River and the Lake Kivu and Lake Tanganyika systems on the eastern edge of the country. This road was cut during the war and as of July 2007 was not in use south of Walikale. Note that the so-called Kinshasa Highway is not a physical road but a metaphor applied to the route by which AIDS is believed to have been spread east through Uganda and Kenya and neighbouring countries by truck drivers from the Congo. In the DR Congo the only highway which physically matches the route is National Road No. 2, and most passengers and freight moving between Kinshasa and that road goes by boat along the Congo River.

International highways

Three routes in the Trans-African Highway network pass through DR Congo:

  • Tripoli-Cape Town Highway: this route crosses the western extremity of the country on National Road No. 1 between Kinshasa and Matadi, a distance of 285 km on one of the only paved sections in fair condition.
  • Lagos-Mombasa Highway: the DR Congo is the main missing link in this east-west highway and requires a new road to be constructed before it can function.
  • Beira-Lobito Highway: this east-west highway crosses Katanga and requires re-construction over most of its length, being an earth track between the Angolan border and Kolwezi, a paved road in very poor condition between Kolwezi and Lubumbashi, and a paved road in fair condition over the short distance to the Zambian border.


The DRC has more navigable rivers and moves more passengers and goods by boat and ferry than any other country in Africa. Kinshasa, with 7 km of river frontage occupied by wharfs and jetties,[21] is the largest inland waterways port on the continent. However, much of the infrastructure — vessels and port handling facilities — has, like the railways, suffered from poor maintenance and internal conflict.

The total length of waterways is estimated at 15,000 km including the Congo River, its tributaries, and unconnected lakes.

The 1000-kilometre Kinshasa-Kisangani route on the Congo River is the longest and best-known. It is operated by river tugs pushing several barges lashed together, and for the hundreds of passengers and traders these function like small floating towns. Rather than mooring at riverside communities along the route, traders come out by canoe and small boat alongside the river barges and transfer goods on the move.

Most waterway routes do not operate to regular schedules. It is common for an operator to moor a barge at a riverside town and collect freight and passengers over a period of weeks before hiring a river tug to tow or push the barge to its destination.

International links via inland waterways

  • Kinshasa is linked to Brazzaville (Republic of the Congo) by regular boat and ferry services 3.5 km across the Congo River.
  • Kinshasa and other river ports via the Ubangui River to Bangui (Central African Republic).
  • Goma and Bukavu on Lake Kivu to Gisenyi, Kibuye and Cyangugu in Rwanda.
  • Kalemie, Kulundu-Uvira and Moba on Lake Tanganyika to Kigoma (Tanzania), Bujumbura (Burundi) and Mpulungu (Zambia).
  • Kasenga and Pweto on the Luapula River-Lake Mweru system to Nchelenge, Kashikishi and Kashiba in Zambia.
  • Lake Albert: two small ports on the DRC side, Kisenye near Bunia and Mahadi-Port in the north can link to Ugandan ports at Butiabo and Pakwach (served by Uganda Railways) on the Albert Nile, which is navigable as far as Nimule in southern Sudan. Water transport is conducted principally in small craft, and commercial water transport is relatively absent.
  • Lake Edward: located within national parks, settlements are small, water transport is conducted principally in small craft, commercial water transport is absent.

Domestic links via inland waterways

The middle Congo River and its tributaries from the east are the principal domestic waterways in the DRC. The two principal river routes are:

  • Kinshasa to Mbandaka and Kisangani on the River Congo
  • Kinshasa to Ilebo on the Kasai River

See the diagrammatic transport map above for other river waterways.

The most-used domestic lake waterways are:

  • Kalemie to Kalundu-Uvira on Lake Tanganyika
  • Bukavu to Goma on Lake Kivu
  • Fimi River to Inongo on Lake Mai-Ndombe
  • Irebu on the Congo to Bikoro on Lake Tumba
  • Kasenga to Pweto on the Luapula-Mweru system
  • Kisenye to Mahadi-Port on Lake Albert.

Ports and harbors

Atlantic Ocean

Inland river ports

Lake Tanganyika

Lake Kivu


petroleum products 390 km

Merchant marine

1 petroleum tanker[22]


Kemal Saiki, a United Nations spokesman, said that the Democratic Republic of the Congo does not "even have 2,000 miles of roads" and that many people traveling around the country fly on aircraft.[23]

The main airlines of the country are Hewa Bora Airways, Bravo Air Congo, and Wimbi Dira Airways. All of their hubs are at Kinshasa's N'djili Airport

The country had 229 airports in 2002 and 232 around 1999.

Airports - with paved runways

total: 24
over 3,047 m: 4
2,438 to 3,047 m: 2
1,524 to 2,437 m: 16
914 to 1,523 m: 2 (2002 est.)

Airports - with unpaved runways

total: 205
1,524 to 2,437 m: 19
914 to 1,523 m: 95
under 914 m: 91 (2002 est.)

Safety and Accidents

All air carriers certified by the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been banned from operating at airports in the European Community by the European Commission, because of inadequate safety standards.[24]


  • Kasai River disaster. A passenger ferry capsises on the Kasai River in July, with at least 80 dead.


  • 2008 Hewa Bora Airways crash - April 15 plane crash killed at least 18 people, after taking off from the Goma International Airport, tearing the roofs off houses as it plowed through a densely populated marketplace near the runway.[25]


  • August 1 train derailment kills 100, many riding on roof.


The Democratic Republic of the Congo has a rocketry program called Troposphere.[26]

See also


  1. ^ Google Earth retrieved 24 September 2007.
  2. ^ Felicity Duncan: "Turning Chinese?" Moneyweb Undictated website (South Africa), 12 November 2007.
  3. ^ Railways in Southern Africa. This source does not distinguish between operational and non-functioning lines.
  4. ^ UNJLC Map number: UNJLC DRC 001 (7 MB). This source distinguishes between 'operational' and 'very degraded' lines, but detail on some sections is obscured by roads.
  5. ^ Rail Network Description at UNJLC. Retrieved 2 June 2007.
  6. ^ a b The Terminal
  7. ^
  8. ^ Le Potentiel, 16 August 2006.
  9. ^
  10. ^ Stanleyville-Ponthierville
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ Closed "owing to its lack of profitability" (Inter Rail No. 2/1997); Mobutu also closed also the bank branches and industry in this region (Le Potentiel No. 3700/2006).
  14. ^ Blanchart, Charles: Le Rail au Congo Belge 1920–1945. Bruxelles: Blanchart, 1999
  15. ^
  16. ^ "China Invests In DRC Transport Infrastructure." OT Africa Line website, dated 17/9/07, source AFP.
  17. ^ "African projects deserve support". Railway Gazette International September 2005
  18. ^ The figures are obtained by dividing the population figures in the Wikipedia country articles by the paved roads figure in the 'Transport in [country]' articles.
  19. ^ a b UNJLC (2006): DRC Snapshot – Roads in DRC.
  20. ^ UNJLC: DRC Ministry of Public Works: Land rehabilitation program
  21. ^ Measured on Google Earth which has high-resolution aerial photos of Kinshasa at coordinates -4.2978 15.3171, showing hundreds of barges and vessels, many apparently derelict ones choking some wharfs.
  22. ^ The World Factbook: "Democratic Republic of the Congo". CIA. Retrieved 22 May 2007.
  23. ^ "African air crash kills 18." CNN.
  24. ^ List of airlines banned in the EU (24 July 2008)
  25. ^ Plane crashes into African marketplace
  26. ^ Crutchfield, Ryan (2010-12-20). "A Brief History of The Congolese Space Program". Retrieved 2011-02-23. 

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