The Trans-Saharan Railway That Wasn’t

Vichy France started building a railway across Africa during World War II. It was never completed.

Sahara railway art
Illustration of a proposed trans-Saharan railway, from Life magazine (November 17, 1941)

In March 1941, Vichy France started building a railway across West Africa that was meant to link up Algiers, Casablanca and Tunis in the north with Dakar in the west and Abidjan, the capital of Côte d’Ivoir, in the south.

Construction never got farther than Béni Abbès, an oasis town in the Algerian desert.

The plan dated back to 1879, but it wasn’t until the collaborationist government of Marshal Philippe Pétain took an interest in the idea that it got off the drawing board. Vichy saw it as a way to promote the unity of the French Empire.

Sahara railway map
Map from Life magazine (November 17, 1941)

That unity was sorely lacking. The French colonies in Equatorial Africa supported the Free French of General Charles de Gaulle. Some of his captured soldiers, and other prisoners, were forced to build the railway in appalling conditions.

Life magazine reported in November 1941 that construction was not such a great engineering feat as its readers might imagine. “The route runs largely over hard ground and through the low point in the Atlas Mountains.”

Sahara railway art
Across shifting sand at the northern end of the route, the railway is raised on trestle to prevent the blowing sand from burying the rails. There are no tunnels and very few bridges.
Sahara railway art
In mountains, when the rainy season may wash out tracks, railway runs along embankment. Here it is paralleled by a water conduit and motor highway.

At the time, the slowly advancing railroad served as a railhead for attacks on the Free French and British in the heart of Africa. “After the war,” Life predicted, “it would open to Germany the riches fo the Niger River basin and all West Africa, putting Berlin four days from Timbuktu by rail and ship.”

Leave a Reply