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Mike Fay famously crossed Gabon, on foot, on his ‘Mega Transect’ journey. That journey lasted 455 days, covering 2,000 miles, charting previously unknown equatorial biospheres enroute.
He could, of course, have simply hopped aboard the Trans Gabon Railway which would have made his journey an awful lot quicker and easier.
Well, a little quicker and a little easier…
The Trans Gabon Railway is a single track line that runs from Libreville’s Owendo station in the West to Franceville in the East. Covering 669km, the route crosses the equator, runs through dense jungle, remote villages and follows the impressive Ogooué river for large sections.
Construction commenced in the late 1970’s, with the final section into Franceville completed a decade later. Covering 23 stations, it is described as an ‘economic corridor’ and remains a very popular mode of passenger transport, in a rugged country with limited transport infrastructure.
Since 2005, resplendent it their bright yellow and blue livery, the “Société d’Exploitation du Transgabonais” (SETRAG) has had the concession to operate the Trans Gabon Railway.
SETRAG is a subsidiary of the manganese exporter Compagnie Minière de l’Ogooué (COMILOG), which itself is subsidiary of the giant French mining group ERAMET. Hence, by day, the railway’s primary use is to transport vast quantities of manganese, iron ore and timber from deep inside the country to the port at Owendo.
The passenger service is, in fact, only an obligation put on SETRAG by Gabon’s government and is by no means the railway’s raison d’être. The income from passenger transport accounts for a mere 12% of the railway’s turnover and is expected to decline further over time.
Frustratingly, there is no website for SETRAG. Hence, nowhere to check the timetable, ticket prices, book online, etc.
Given the ancillary nature of the passenger service, perhaps it is no surprise that it only runs overnight. Those passengers I spoke to didn’t seem to mind and felt it was an efficient use of their time to travel whilst (hopefully) sleeping through the night.
It is a shame for passengers, though, that the amazing scenery is shrouded in darkness for much of the journey. The silver lining to any delays, however, is that one gets to spend more daylight hours watching the scenery go by.
The official timetable has changed little since the route started but remains hard to find, both online and in hard copy at stations, including at Owendo (Libreville). It is generally accepted that, whilst the trains may depart from Libreville and Franceville on time, the service will ultimately run with delays of one to two hours.
Luggage over 10kg must be checked-in at the station at least a couple of hours before the train departs. Normally, it will need to be wrapped in plastic as well. A nominal fee is charged for both. The more isolated rural stations may not observe this requirement.
Passengers are normally asked to arrive an hour (or hours) before the train is scheduled to depart. Check locally what they require. In any event, this can mean frustrating waits, given the inevitable delays.
The Express Trans-Ogooué service only stops at the eight major stations. Whereas, the Omnibus L’Equateur train is the ‘stopping service’ at every station on the line.
Owendo to Franceville
|Monday / Wednesday / Friday
|Tuesday / Thursday / Sunday
Franceville to Owendo
|Monday / Wednesday / Friday
|Tuesday / Thursday / Sunday
It is recommended that tickets are purchased a few days in advance. Compartments do sell out, especially during busy periods such as school and national holidays. In Libreville city centre, there is a SETRAG ticket office situated a few doors up from Le Pellison cafe, near the Casino Supermarket. In all other locations, tickets are only available at the station and on the assumption that their ticketing system is working.
I purchased my tickets at Owendo station in the late afternoon, with only a queue of a couple of people in front of me. Alighting there mid-morning a few days later, the queue was a slow moving twenty or more frustrated looking people long.
Against the backdrop of piped music and loud station announcements at Owendo, communication through the thick plate glass with the ticket office attendant was difficult, not to mention that they only speak their native French. I suggest writing out clearly on paper which stations, date, class and number of tickets you require and putting this through the small hole, in order to speed up the process.
As is common across Gabon, payment is in cash only and expect to have to provide a copy of your passport details and a mobile telephone number to complete the booking.
Confusingly, the date shown on the ticket is the date on which your train departs from Libreville or Franceville. If you are catching the train further along its journey after midnight, the ticket will show the correct time but the date will not change and hence, show the day before’s date.
The printed ticket is otherwise very clear and helpful. Note though, that the ticket shows the carriage (‘voiture’) that your seat is in as VA, VB, VC, etc. In reality, the train carriages are labelled as A, B, C etc. Hence, ignore the preceding ‘V’ shown on your ticket to find your carriage.
The ticket prices are not widely publicised and may now be a few hundred CFA extra to those below. I have not included the VIP ticket prices, as this service does not appear to be available since the introduction of the newly refurbished trains.
Stations (that I visited)
Situated south of Libreville, Owendo station is quite out on its own. When the train pulls in, expect to see plenty of taxis but not at other times. There are very limited facilities at the station, so buy all your provisions in town.
As should be the case at all stations, hand luggage must be 10kg or less. Larger bags must be checked-in. At Libreville, the deadline for this is 18:15 before the 18:30 closing of access the platform and the 18:50 departure.
You will likely be required to have your bag plastic wrapped for c. 1,000 CFA. A piece of masking tape is then put on your bag with your name, destination and telephone number handwritten on it. You are then instructed to pay a fairly nominal fee and receive a receipt, required when collecting your bag at the other end. That is the last you will see of your luggage until you arrive at your destination, where it is unceremoniously dumped onto the station platform.
The station at Booué is described as being the access point for the impressive Ivindo National Park. For any UK readers, “Oxenholme for the Lake District,” it is not, however. The national park is a bumpy four hour drive away on terracotta red dust tracks through thick equatorial forests, small mud hut hamlets and the occasional police check point. The drive is only sensibly attempted during daylight hours.
Very basic accommodation is available opposite Booué train station, next to some lively, if equally basic, bars. The Hotel Splendid overlooking the station provides a slightly better option, though the name is a major exaggeration on the actual standard of the hotel.
I paid 15,000 CFA for an air conditioned room at Hotel Splendid for the few hours before that night’s train and also had dinner there. The running water is only from 18:00 to 20:30 and even then that did not materialise. I was instead provided with a large jerry can of water and had to make do with that.
The station has a 24 hour bar restaurant, which included a large geriatric mouse pacing around eating any crumbs during my visit. I alerted the staff to its presence, to which I received a shrug of the shoulders.
There are no departure boards or announcements to let you know the extent of the delays. Station staff are reticent to predict an arrival time until the last minute, at which point they will make a tanoy announcement in French.
The Booué station staff were politely insistent on having luggage checked-in at least a few hours before the train was due. The platform was not long enough for the train and also much below the train door height. There is enough time to walk down the gravel to your carriage, and clamber aboard in the twilight. Alternatively, jump on from the platform and weave your way through the train once on board.
The sparse collection of houses, shops and guesthouses that constitutes Lopé sits on the northern flank of the vast Lopé National Park. The station is even smaller than Booué, with even shorter platforms. It is also no stranger to visits from the local wildlife. Upon my arrival, a large herd of buffaloes crossed our path, when enroute to the Lopé Hotel. On my departure, we were treated to forest elephants crashing through and eating from the trees and bushes no more than 20 metres from the other side of the platforms.
During my visit, the electronic ticket system was not working at the station. The staff had no concerns about luggage check-in or firm ideas about what time the train would arrive or leave. On this occasion, it pulled in after 2am and left at precisely 3am. The ticket inspector on board the train was relaxed and accommodating with those who were unable to buy their tickets at Lopé station.
Both the Lopé Hotel and its cheaper annex in town will provide late night lifts to the station at around midnight for departing passengers. If they are notified in advance, they will pick up arriving passengers but, given how unpredictably late the train runs, you will have to wait for them to hear / see the train pull into the station and drive down. They won’t be there waiting for you.
A word of warning: do not attempt to walk the 20 minutes or so to the Lopé Hotel at night, as it is a hard track to find in the pitch black, if you are arriving for the first time in the dead of night. Moreover, the track cuts through open parkland wherein wild elephants, buffaloes and other animals roam at will. They are all beautiful but dangerous animals; the track is best navigated in a car at night.
There are two train types that run the passenger service, each going in one direction on one day before returning in the opposite direction:
Express Trans- Ogooué
The, “Express Trans-Ogooué,” train is a 2017 refurbished commuter train from Germany, which enjoys good sized seats that recline well and plenty of luggage space, if you are able to bring it aboard (photo above). The carriages are comfortably air conditioned and fully lit throughout the journey. In 1st class there was a TV showing a movie in French, with the sound projected through speakers above your head. Sleep would not be easy.
The, “Omnibus L’Equateur,” train is a slightly older French model but the seats are similarly comfortable, wide and recline surprisingly far back. In 1st class, there are single seats on one side and a pair of seats on the other. There was no TV in 1st Class and they did, thankfully, turn the lights out in the carriage to allow passengers to sleep.
All announcements are made in French and are limited to short messages just before arriving at the next station.
I only encountered the catering car at dawn on the Omnibus train, by which point it appeared to only offer a café noisette for 500 CFA. Only this, despite a gentleman resplendent in a full white chef’s outfit, replete with floppy chef’s hat, sitting behind the low counter. The non- air-conditioned carriage had precious little in it, save for some fixed stools along a narrow counter against the windows. I suggest this is a ‘bring your own’ journey. Alcohol is not permitted on board, however.
Cleanliness and Repair
The interior of both the Express and Omnibus trains were impressively clean and in good repair. To a large extent, passengers treated the carriages very well and did not idly litter, put dirty shoes on seats, etc. Whilst the windows were clean on the inside, some were pretty dirty on the outside, especially on the Omnibus train. They may well have been clean at the start of the journey, given the heavy rains and distances covered.
Having asked around, whist both services may be slower than the timetable, no one reported a service having broken down in recent memory.
I did notice a shattered window in my carriage on the Omnibus train, albeit a smaller window that could be opened as an air vent, above the main window. Hopefully I am wrong, but I do wonder if they have the spare parts readily available to fix such issues, which may then be left for weeks or longer.
Safety and Security
On the Omnibus train, the exit doors are not locked and can slide open of their own accord or if you open them. Depending on the speed, if you were to survive a fall from the train, you would likely be in incredibly remote and inhospitable jungle surrounds. Be careful.
On the Express train, the exit doors are locked. When pulling into a station, both sets of doors on either side of the train can then be opened. At best, this can be bewildering, if you see no signs of life when exiting on the wrong side. At both Booué and Lopé, the station platforms are materially shorter than the long train and the stations sparsely illuminated at best. Take care when clambering up into the train and down from the train onto the loose gravel below.
On both trains, if you are joining mid-journey, late at night, you may well have someone asleep in your seat(s), as there are clear seat numbers but no indication as to whether they are reserved or not. It was not uncommon to see one person sprawling over two seats and / or covering themselves head to toe in a sheet. It is a necessary but unenviable task to wake and move them, if they are in your reserved seats. I chose not to force the issue upon locating my seat, slipped into a spare single seat and hoped for the best.
Gendarmes and ticket inspectors walk the train at each stop. Whilst it is always sensible to take precautions with valuable items, like Gabon as a whole, I did not feel uncomfortable or unsafe on the train or at the stations late at night.
Alighting at Libreville, you will be subjected to a full ticket inspection, with supporting ID required. If it is your passport, expect a line by line check of your visa as well.
Any questions, please post them in the comments below and I will answer as best I can.
Express 2nd Class seating – Tudosă Mihai-Marian, Electroputere VFU Pașcani via Railway Gazette
Omnibus 2nd Class Extrior – “AnneSo et Paul au Gabon”