Ethiopia: New railway project to link Addis Ababa with Djibouti

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Strategically-important rail link is the latest step in Ethiopia’s Growth and Transformation Plan

A high-speed electric train in China (Picture: Alancrh)

Camels rather than locomotives lumber over the railway tracks in this remote desert, famously traversed by storied French adventurers Arthur Rimbaud and Henry de Monfreid in the early 20th century.

The old French-built railway that connected Addis Ababa, the capital of landlocked Ethiopia, to the Red Sea port of Djibouti, is now being replaced by a Chinese-built electrified railway, a bold project that seeks to boost Ethiopia’s commercial exports.

The new project also symbolises a shift in Ethiopia’s international relations.

“You see nowadays that the dice are thrown differently. Chinese, Indian (and) Turkish interests are now taking over… times have changed,” said Hugues Fontaine, author of the recently published book Un Train en Afrique, or African Train, about the historic Ethiopian train.

Indeed, Ethiopia is casting its dice eastward — seeking investors to help it achieve its grandiose Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP), which seeks to boost economic growth and achieve middle income status by 2025.

The construction of the railway is a key component of the GTP: a series of eight rail corridors totalling 4,744 kilometres (2,948 miles), creating a series of key trade routes to neighbouring Kenya, South Sudan, Sudan and — crucially — to Djibouti‘s port.

Two Chinese companies are contracted to build the $2.8 bn (€2.15 bn) line connecting Addis Ababa to the Djiboutian border by 2016, and Turkish and Brazilian companies are slated to construct other segments of the nation-wide rail network.

“We are working day and night,” said Zacharia Jemal, project manager working for the Ethiopian Railways Corporation.

Zacharia said the project will create 5,000 local jobs, and allow Ethiopia to boost exports of key commodities such as coffee and sesame. It also offers the opportunity to get Ethiopian workers trained by engineers from the Chinese Civil Engineering Construction Corporation.

The company is building the line from Mieso to the Djibouti border at a cost of $1.2 bn (€923m), of which 70% is financed by the Export-Import Bank of China and 30% by the Ethiopian government.

Another Chinese company will build the Addis Ababa to Mieso segment.

The new electric train will launch Ethiopia into a modern era of rail transport. It will be one of the first electric trains in East Africa, will run at a speed of 120 kilometres an hour and will be both easier and cheaper to maintain, as it will be mechanised and rely on locally-produced hydropower to run.

It’s also a source of pride for the workers involved in boosting development and contributing to Ethiopia’s industrialising economy.

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