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New rail project in Ethiopia evoke memories of glory days

media Unused railways in Ethiopia Johnny Haglund/Getty Images

In the first of a five-part series on railways in Africa, we visit Ethiopia, the first country in Africa to have a railway. The French-built railway connected the capital Addis Ababa to the Red Sea port of Djibouti. However, the old diesel railway is now being replaced by a Chinese-built electrified railway, a grand plan that seeks to transport the country’s commercial exports to its neighbouring countries.

A train hasn’t left Addis Ababa for six years. But this major new train line is expected to open between Addis Ababa and the port of Djibouti in 2016.

This will be the first train line that forms a major piece of the 5,000 km transportation network planned to connect the landlocked country to neighbouring countries.

Abebe Meheret, the head of communications for Ethiopia’s National Railway Corporation, has high hopes for the new project.

“We are looking to connect to North Sudan, Central Sudan and South Sudan. From Ethiopia to Djibouti. From Ethiopia to Kenya, the Lamu corridor will be connected and it will be one of the best routes between Ethiopia and Kenya. The main purpose of the railway is to connect Ethiopia economically to its neighbouring countries.”

Two Chinese companies are involved in the project.

“We are preparing the railway for dual purposes. It is for passengers and for freight,” Meheret explained. “Maybe after 2 years we will have it. Everybody is eager to see the result. Every Ethiopian has taken this railway as its own project.”

The first railway in Africa was built in Ethiopia. It was the brainchild of two French engineers who approached Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II in 1897 with the ambitious idea of constructing a railway to replace the six-week mule trek between Addis Ababa and the French port city of Djibouti.

Debebe Kasa has worked as station manager at the old Addis Ababa station for the past 25 years. He said the frequency of train services declined sharply during Ethiopia’s communist military rule between 1974 and 1991.

“In 1917, the first train left Addis Ababa for Djibouti; 781 Km after two days. But [Emperor] Menelik did not see it…It was good because of the relationship with France, Belgium and Swiss. There were six passenger trains per day and four or five freight trains per day. After that, in 1974, Ethiopia became communist. [Under the] communists there were three trains per week,” he said.

When the trains needed spare parts, Kasa said, the French government did not want to give them to Ethiopia.

At the railway worker’s club in Addis Ababa, retired Ethiopian railway workers spend the day speaking French and playing pétanque.

Wase Fikru has worked on the railway all his life. Although he lamented the loss of the old railway, he was also excited about the new project.

“The railway workers must be the first to travel with this new train. I will be the first if I am alive. I love Chemins de Fer [railways], I love it. Everybody loves railway transport in Ethiopia; I gave it everything. I passed all my young age in that,” he recalled.

Ethiopia’s new railway is expected to cost close to 8 billion euros with funds coming from China, India, Brazil and Turkey. It is also expected to generate 30,000 new jobs.

The promise of Ethiopia’s railway project has captured the hearts and minds of Ethiopians. It is also expected to bring kudos back to a country that started the railway revolution.

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