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Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway

On October 5, 2016, the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway was opened at Labu Station, marking its official launch of operations. Built by the China Railway Engineering Corporation (CREC) and China Railway Construction Corporation (CRCC), the railway links the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa with the port of Djibouti, one of the largest ports in East Africa.

With a total budget of US$4 billion, the line has been called the “Tanzania-Zambia Railway of the new era.” The Tanzania-Zambia Railway was a large joint project undertaken by the governments of Tanzania, Zambia and China in the 1970s that became a symbol of China-Africa friendship. The Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway is turning a new page in African rail history, and its construction created around 48,000 local jobs.

Travelling at 120km/h, the new service will cut the journey time down from three days by road to about 12 hours. The $3.4 billion project was built by two Chinese companies and is the first to be electrified in Africa. The railway is capable of slashing journey times between Addis Ababa and Djibouti from seven days by road to around 10 hours.

As early as the beginning of the 21st Century, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Transport signed a contract with the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), a subsidiary of CRCC, looking for solutions on railway planning and construction from the engineering enterprise. In a country like Ethiopia with underdeveloped infrastructure and a meager supply of power and construction materials, building an electric railway would be a tremendous challenge. The construction plan was only approved and implemented after several drafts.

As early as 2013, experts raised questions about the costing of Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway (SGR); Kenya was being charged $6.6 million per kilometer compared to $4.9 million per kilometer for Ethiopia’s ER. This was particularly a concern because there are no major rivers or lakes or large hills to justify the high cost of the SGR. In addition, parts of the ER will be a double track, not a single track as the SGR will be in its entirety.

The SGR freight will have an average speed of 80KPH while the ER will go up to 120KPH; but it is doubtful those speeds will be reached by the SGR because it is a single track and stoppages will be needed to allow other trains to pass. The SGR passenger train will have an average speed of 120 KPH while the ER will have an average speed of 160 KPH with next provision for 225KPH. Questions as well arise because Kenya is spending additional to buy its trains and rolling stock than Ethiopia. Why?

Ethiopia has as well been smarter with regards to reaping human development dividends from rail construction, specifically the Light Rail Transit System (LRT). Ethiopia has been using the development of the LRT to build domestic technical capacity.

A total investment of US $4 billion was put into the project, which used Chinese-made equipment and standards. The 752.7 km railway has 45 stations and trains are designed to run at speeds of up to 120 km per hour. This is the first overseas railway built solely by Chinese enterprises and many different Chinese companies were involved in the project: The Export-Import Bank of China provided funding; CREC was the EPC (engineering, procurement and construction) contractor; and China International Engineering Consulting Corporation acted as consultant and supervisor.

The railway is the second transnational railway built by Chinese firms in Africa. The first was the Tazara Railway built in the 1970s, linking Dar es Salaam in Tanzania with Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia. During a visit to Ethiopia in May 2013, Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang hailed the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway as the “Tazara Railway for a new era.” Yet unlike the Tazara Railway, which was funded by the Chinese government, the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway is a commercial venture by Chinese firms.

When Ethiopia first decided to build a new railway, they invited experts from Switzerland, Australia, and other developed countries to conduct a survey. The experts, from a technical point of view, concluded that constructing an electrified railway from the flat desert land around Djibouti right up to the Ethiopian Plateau was an impossible task.

CREC took the initiative, contacting Ethiopian officials with geological and hydrological data for the proposed route, collected by technicians with China Railway No. 2 Group and China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group. Using their rich experience in railway construction, the two groups submitted a high-quality project feasibility report and preliminary design plan to the Ethiopian Railway Company, which eventually won them the EPC contract.

During construction, the Chinese engineers and workers managed to find solutions to other problems too, such as a lack of supplies locally, long transit times for imported equipment and goods, poor medical facilities, different customs, not to mention the language barrier. In the space of only 48 months – from the time construction commenced in October 2012, to the official inauguration four years later – a modern electric railway was unveiled to the peoples of both nations. The track-building took only 13 months, which was a new record in rail construction.

The Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway has been hailed as a “lifeline program.” Landlocked Ethiopia relies on the Red Sea ports of its neighbor, Djibouti, as its main gateway for imports and exports. This traffic makes up a staggering 90 percent of the throughput at Djibouti’s ports. The only land route is a dilapidated road with limited capacity and journeys can take up to a week. The new railway will reduce journey time to 10 hours and will become the main channel for the export of goods and travel between Ethiopia and the rest of East Africa.

Using railway construction as a platform, Chinese enterprises have expanded their industrial chain to fields including ports, logistics and real estate. Goods are piled up along the road outside the storage yard of the Djibouti port. Trucks waiting to load or unload queue up for miles. Local businessmen are optimistic about the future. When the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway opened, the transport time for cargo from Djibouti to Addis Ababa dropped from a week to about 10 hours, greatly enhancing cross-border logistics efficiency.

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