|Employees of the Ethiopian Railways Corporation work at a construction site of the new Chinese-built railway in Dire Dawa, north eastern Ethiopia on February 26. The railway will connect Addis Ababa and Djibouti’s Red Sea
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,has 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, 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 billion 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.
Jemal 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 billion, of which 70 per cent is financed by the Export-Import Bank of China and 30 per cent by the Ethiopian government.
Another Chinese company will build the Addis Ababa to Mieso segment.
While the economic benefits of the train – which will be used for both freight and passenger transport, replacing slow and costly truck transport- is widely recognised, some lament the seemingly inevitable death of the historic French-built diesel-powered train, which went out of service in 2008 after years of neglect.
“In terms of the economy, the (new) train could be very profitable for Ethiopia, one machine could replace 10 trucks… and (maintenance) is easier and more cost-effective,” said Josef Petros, who worked for the French railway company for more than 30 years.
But he said that if the old train ceases to operate, it will be a great loss for Ethiopia and for Dire Dawa, the commercial town in northeastern Ethiopia where the main train station and workshops were headquartered.