Sudan on Thursday inaugurated a railway linking the north and south for the first time since decades of civil war ripped Africa’s largest country apart.

Officials said the railway will provide a crucial economic link and lower commercial transportation costs.

The 446 km (277 mile) railway was originally built in the 1960s and will re-connect the town of Babanusa in central Sudan to Wau town, deep in the war-ravaged south.

“It will be the lifeline of the area, the cheapest way to bring in goods including from Port Sudan,” said Mohammed Bashir, the engineer in charge of the project.

Two million people died, mostly in the south, during the civil war that ended with a peace deal in 2005. It gave the south a semi-autonomous government and a 50 percent share of oil revenues from southern wells.

Relations between the north and south remained troubled, with fighting erupting at least three times. It is widely expected that the south will choose to separate from northern Sudan in a January vote on independence.

There are a few, poor roads between the south and the north but they become almost impassable during the long rainy season, said Nhial Bol, Director General of Railways in the semi-autonomous south’s transport ministry.

He said restarting the rail link was delayed by arguments over whether the north or south should fund the project.

The railway was paid for by the World Bank-administered Multi-Donor Trust Fund (MDTF). Two-thirds of the $46 million cost was provided by the Sudanese government and the rest footed by international donors, Bashir said.

Bol said commercial trains will begin running soon once the ticketing system is organised. He said a tender had recently been released looking for a company to assess the feasibility of extending the railway from Wau through three other southern towns including Juba and then to northern Uganda. (Reuters)