WITH Chinese conductors at the helm, a fleet of shiny new trains yesterday began plying a new route from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa to the Red Sea port city of Djibouti, in a major boost to both economies.
The 752.7-kilometer railway, built by two Chinese companies, will link the two African cities in about 10 hours, a far cry from the current excruciating multi-day trip along a congested, pot-holed 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.”
Some 1,500 trucks a day currently lumber along the road which carries 90 percent 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 percent, however the International Monetary Fund estimates that the worst drought in 30 years is likely to see this plummet to 4.5 percent in 2016.
Both countries benefit from economic integration, with Ethiopia gaining access to the sea and Djibouti — the smallest state in the Horn of Africa — 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 standard and technology, and certainly it will not be the last. Many stand to benefit from it,” said Chinese ambassador to Ethiopia La Yifan.
The new railway means the end of the historic French-built diesel line built-in 1917, which fell into abandon in later decades, with frequent derailment.
Yesterday’s inauguration will be followed by a three-month test period, with no paying passengers and carrying only cargo.
However, when the line is fully functional, uniformed Chinese controllers will welcome passengers to spotless platforms of newly built stations all along the route, while Chinese technicians and stationmaster will keep things running in the background.
“We don’t yet have the management experience yet. We have a management contract with Chinese staff for five years, with an Ethiopian counterpart in training,” said Getachew.
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$4 billion railway, with its red, yellow and green trains evoking the Ethiopian flag, was 70 percent 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, signed further agreements on Tuesday valued at US$100 million for the construction of roads, the state-controlled Fana Broadcasting Corporation reported.
China became Africa’s largest trade partner in 2009.
China built the US$200million 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 percent” last year, as growth slowed in China.
The railway is the first step in a vast network of 5,000 kilometers of rail which Ethiopia hopes to build by 2020.