Chinese-built railway links landlocked Ethiopia, one of the world’s fastest growing economies, to the sea

Deal brings reliable transport to Addis Ababa and access to market of 95 million people to tiny but strategic port of Djibouti

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 October, 2016, 5:20pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 October, 2016, 3:09pm

With Chinese conductors at the helm, a fleet of new trains began plying a new route from the Ethiopian capital to neighbouring Djibouti yesterday, in a major boost to both economies.

The 750km railway, built by two Chinese companies, will link Addis Ababa to the strategic Red Sea port of Djibouti in about 10 hours, a far cry from the present multi-day trip along a congested, potholed road.

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He Wenping, from the Institute of West-Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the line would open the door to more Chinese investment in the region.

It would be an example for future railway projects in Africa
He Wenping, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

“It would be an example for future railway projects in Africa … and facilitate Chinese exports of rail equipment and machinery,” He said, adding that Chinese firms could also build housing projects along the line.

About 1,500 trucks a day lumber along the road that carries 90 per cent of imports and exports from landlocked Ethiopia to Djibouti – 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
Mekonnen Getachew, Ethiopian Railways Corporation

“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.

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Chinese ambassador to Ethiopia La Yifan said the line was the first standard-gauge electrified railroad on the continent built with Chinese standards and technology. The new railway replaces a diesel line built by the French in 1917.

State-run Xinhua quoted China Railway Construction Corporation chairman Meng Fengchao as saying most of the equipment used for the project was also from China, and Chinese companies were fully involved in the project’s design, construction and assessment.

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The inauguration of the line will be followed by a three-month test period, involving freight but no paying passengers.

When the line is fully operational, 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.

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.

The railway is the first step in a vast 5,000km rail network that Ethiopia hopes to build by 2020.

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, because the railway would have to pass through war-torn countries such as South Sudan or the Central African Republic.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse