The Chinese government selected a state-owned company to negotiate a concession to operate a line connecting Zambia’s copper-mining heartland with the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam. 

A China Railway Construction Corp. unit has been asked to submit its proposal by the end of October, the Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority said in a statement on Wednesday.

The move may help revive the near-five-decade old line that Mao Zedong’s government built to be China’s biggest foreign aid project, costing about $500 million. The Tazara railway has since fallen into disrepair and hauls a fraction of its design capacity of about 5 million tons per year. 

It’s becoming increasingly strategic as transport routes into and out of a copper-rich region that stretches from Zambia into the Democratic Republic of Congo become clogged.

The governments of Zambia and Tanzania agreed to bring in a Chinese concessionaire to operate it. The railway may compete with a new one that the US is helping Zambia to build that will connect the so-called copperbelt with an existing line running to the Angolan port of Lobito.  

The Tazara line was front and center of Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema’s September state visit to China, his Transport Minister Frank Tayali said in an interview Sept. 20. The route requires hundreds of millions of dollars in investment to become profitable, he said. 

“This is not a cheap undertaking,” Tayali said in his office in Lusaka. “Over a period of time I could say, look, $1 billion is not far-fetched. It has to be gradual.”