With Chinese conductors at the helm, a fleet of shiny new trains on Wednesday began plying a new route from the Ethiopian capital to neighbouring Djibouti, in a major boost to both economies.
The 750km railway, built by two Chinese companies, will link Addis Ababa to Djibouti, a strategic port enclave on the Red Sea, in about 10 hours, a far cry from the current excruciating multi-day trip along a congested, potholed road.
“We’re so excited! It takes two or three days for a truck to come from Djibouti. The driver doesn’t answer his phone. We don’t know where he is and that can be a bit of a nightmare,” said Ethiopian importer Tingrit Worku. “The train could make a huge difference”.
About 1,500 trucks a day currently lumber along the road which carries 90 per cent of imports and exports from landlocked Ethiopia to the port – a key trade hub to Asia, Europe and the rest of Africa.
“This train is a game changer. Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. The connection to the ports (of Djibouti) will give a bounce and our economy will grow faster,” said Mekonnen Getachew, project manager of the Ethiopian Railways Corporation.
Ethiopia was the world’s fastest growing economy last year at 10.2 per cent. However, the International Monetary Fund estimates that the worst drought in 30 years is likely to see this plummet to 4.5 per cent by the end of this year.
Despite being one of the largest countries in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia is landlocked with no ports of its own. Both countries benefit from economic integration, with Ethiopia gaining access to the sea and tiny Djibouti gaining access to Ethiopia’s emerging market of 95 million people.
“It is the first standard gauge electrified railroad on the continent built with Chinese standards and technology, and certainly will not be the last. Many stand to benefit from it,” Chinese ambassador to Ethiopia La Yifan said in a statement.
The new railway replaces the historic diesel line built by the French in 1917, which fell into abandon in later decades, with frequent derailments.
Wednesday’s inauguration will be followed by a three-month test period, carrying only cargo but no paying passengers.
When the line is fully functional, uniformed Chinese controllers will welcome passengers on spotless platforms at newly built stations all along the route, while Chinese technicians and stationmasters will keep things running in the background.
“We don’t have the management experience yet,” Getachew said. “We have a management contract with Chinese staff for five years, with an Ethiopian counterpart in training.”
China has invested heavily in infrastructure in Ethiopia, funding sub-Saharan Africa’s first modern tramway – which opened last year – as well as motorways and dams.
The new US$3.4 billion railway, with its red, yellow and green trains evoking the Ethiopian flag, was 70 per cent financed by China’s Exim Bank and built by China Railway Group and China Civil Engineering Construction.
A high-level Chinese delegation, in Addis Ababa for the inauguration of the railway, on Tuesday signed further agreements worth US$100 million to build roads, the Ethiopia’s state-owned Fana Broadcasting Corporation reported.
Natural resources from Africa have helped fuel China’s economic boom, and it became the continent’s largest trade partner in 2009.
Beijing even built the US$200 million African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa in 2012 as a gift expressing “friendship to the African people”.
However, direct investment in Africa slumped “more than 40 per cent” last year, as China’s economic growth slowed.
The railway is the first step in a vast 5,000km rail network that Ethiopia hopes to build by 2020.
“Our plan is to connect the train to Mekele (north), to Moyale (south), near Kenya, and to Gambella (west), near South Sudan. So we will be connected to Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan,” said Getachew.
Djibouti, the smallest state in the Horn of Africa, sees the project as the start of a trans-African railway crossing the continent from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, a journey that takes three weeks by ship.
But the dream appears far off, as the railway would have to pass through war-torn countries such as South Sudan or the Central African Republic.