A major project is under way to restore Ethiopia’s 100-year-old imperial railway, and there are even plans to build a new national network.
By Elizabeth Blunt BBC News, Ethiopia
The French built it for the Emperor Menelik in the early 1900s, and French influences are everywhere, from the glazed canopies of the Addis Ababa railway station to the startling sight of the Ethiopian station staff in Dire Dawa talking to each other in French as they dispatch a night goods train down the line to Djibouti.
Like so many rail systems, the Ethiopia-Djibouti railway was neglected for years in favour of road transport, but the loss of its main ports when Eritrea gained independence left Ethiopia totally dependent on Djibouti for an outlet to the sea.
The country needed the railway more than ever, but the line was in no fit state for intensive use.
The system is narrow, one metre gauge, with steep gradients on the long haul up from sea level to the Ethiopian highlands.
Some stretches of track are more than a century old; crumbling embankments and decaying bridges limit the weight and speed of the trains.
Recently it has been averaging one derailment a week, and attracting so little traffic that for a time staff frequently went unpaid.
But now, with European Union support, a major restoration project is under way.
Almost a third of the track is being re-laid, using heavier weight rails – 40kg per metre instead of the 20kg rails still in use on some stretches of the line.
The section from Addis Ababa to Dire Dawa has been closed while the work is going on.
A spectacular stretch of line, near the town of Metahara, where the track runs on a narrow causeway across a volcanic lake, has already been completed.
Workers are strengthening bridges, consolidating embankments, and casting 25,000 concrete sleepers to replace the lightweight metal sleepers which were there before.
Meanwhile, a little desultory traffic still runs on the lower stretch of the line from Dire Dawa to Djibouti – a trainload of fruit and vegetables once a week for sale in Djibouti, coffee for export, trainloads of live camels destined for the meat markets of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
Coming the other way are all the construction materials needed for the project itself.
When the work is finished, in perhaps 18 months time, the system will still be narrow gauge, but much safer and more robust, able to take heavier trains at faster speeds.
The railway’s general manager, To’om Terie, who now sits in his comfortable office in Addis Ababa above a silent, deserted station, says he expects a volume of something like 10 trains a day and a comfortable operating profit.
Mr To’om, who has worked for the railway for more than 30 years, is happy about the prospects for his own railway, but excited too that national policy now officially embraces rail transport.
The government is starting to plan a completely new rail system, with a further 5,000 km (3,100 miles) of lines.
It is early days yet, and Ethiopia is still looking for partners to build such a network.
But the man in charge of the project, Getachew Betru, confirmed that this would be a standard gauge railway, electrified to take advantage of the abundant, cheap electricity expected to be produced by ambitious new hydro-electric schemes soon to come into operation.
It would be primarily designed to carry freight, and although the proposed routes are still confidential, it might – for instance – serve the coffee-producing areas of western Ethiopia, the light industries of the north, the commercial food producing areas south of Addis Ababa, and the fertile, but as yet undeveloped farmlands near the Sudan border.
Mr Getachew talks with enthusiasm about rail transport as the engine of development, and of his conviction that railways are inherently more “pro-poor” than any other transport system – of much more use to Ethiopia’s rural dwellers than an expensive network of tarmac road, driven on mostly by tourists and aid workers.
At the moment the new network is still a dream, but given Ethiopia’s dramatically-rugged terrain, if it does get built, then it will surely be one of the outstanding railway engineering feats of the 21st Century.