The first train to travel along the nearly 800km track delivered more than 3,000 tonnes of grain from Djibouti port to drought-affected areas. The United Nations says more than 15 million people will be in need of emergency food aid by the beginning of 2016.
The ERC says the railway will completely transform the way humanitarian assistance is delivered, in a country regularly affected by drought. “The trains will deliver bulk quantities of food aid very close to drought-affected people. It will do this in a matter of a few hours,” says ERC technical adviser, Muluken Mesfin.
Ethiopa is importing up to 2 million tonnes of grain as an emergency measure
“One thousand five hundred trucks a day leave Djibouti port for Ethiopia,” says the chairman of the Djibouti Port Authority, Abubaker Hadi. “It is projected there will be 8,000 a day by 2020. This is not feasible. That is why the railway is so desperately needed.”
Mr Getachew agrees: “It can take trucks two to three weeks to reach Addis from Djibouti. They break down all the time and the road gets congested. Once it is fully operational the railway will cut the journey to about five hours, as the trains will travel at 120 km/h. This will save money as well as time.”
The Chinese-built track runs parallel to the abandoned Ethio-Djibouti railway, built more than 100 years ago by France for Emperor Menelik. Costing some $3bn (£2bn), it starts at sea level in Djibouti. It then makes its way through Ethiopia’s dramatic, challenging terrain until it reaches Addis Ababa, about 2,500m above sea level.
Mr Getachew expresses bewilderment at the World Bank and Western donors such as the European Union, who, he says, were reluctant to fund the railway project. “I think the road lobby was too strong. We ended up with the Chinese, who are not only constructing the railway, but providing most of the funding too.”
The railway network will eventually be electrified, powered by renewable energy
Potential for peace
The economic potential of Ethiopia’s planned 5,000km rail network is obvious. But the railway might do a whole lot more, both in terms of regional integration and maybe even peacemaking.
Railways are being constructed all over Africa. The East African Railway Master Plan hopes to revive existing lines in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, eventually extending them to Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan and Ethiopia.
Mr Getachew hints at another potential role. He shows me how the Addis-Djibouti line lies close to Ethiopia’s border with Somaliland, which declared independence in 1991 but has not been recognised internationally.
A railway could also bring wealth to Somalis, suggests Mr Getachew. Somalia has the longest coastline in Africa, and has rich fish stocks. But Somalis are not keen on eating fish.
“Ethiopians have two fasting days a week when we only eat fish. As a landlocked country, we only have Nile perch and tilapia. As our economy grows, at about 10% a year, demand increases for more variety. This could be a win-win situation.”
One day a Pan African railway will extend from the Red Sea in Djibouti all the way across Africa to the Atlantic Ocean. A few wars will have to end first.
In April, China Railway Construction Corp signed a $3.5bn (£2.3bn) contract to build an intercity rail line in Nigeria.
That followed a $12bn contract for another Nigerian rail line last year, which at the time was the biggest foreign contract won by a Chinese state-owned firm. The line is planned to run 1,400km along the Nigerian coast.
China is also building major rail projects in Angola (under an infrastructure-for-oil deal), DR Congo, Kenya and Tanzania.
Chinese infrastructure investments overseas are commonly underpinned by finance from Beijing-backed lenders such as China Development Bank. The rail projects are expected to generate billions of dollars in export orders for Chinese trainmakers.
East African Railway Master Plan
The East African Railway Master Plan is a proposal for rejuvenating existing railways serving Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and extending them initially to Rwanda and Burundi and eventually to South Sudan, Ethiopia and beyond. The plan is managed by infrastructure ministers from participating East African Community countries in association with transport consultation firm CPCS Transcom.
The following are some of the proposed railway lines under the plan; all are standard gauge
Mombasa-Bujumbura Line; passes through Nairobi, Rongai, Tororo, Kampala, and Kigali.
Nairobi-Addis Ababa Line; passes through Garissa.
Lamu-Juba Line; passes through Garissa.
Nairobi-Juba Line; passes through Garissa.
Nairobi-Kisumu Line; passes through Rongai
Kampala-Kisangani Line; passes through Kasese
Kisangani-Bujumbura Line; passes through Kasese, Kampala, and Kigali
Tororo-Juba Line; passes through Gulu, with spur to Pakwach at Gulu.
Kisumu-Juba Line; passes through Rongai
Kampala-Juba Line; passes through Tororo, and Gulu
Juba-Addis Ababa Line; passes through Garissa
Dar es Salam-Burundi and Rwanda Line
Godfather Michael Corleone: It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.
In 2014, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang pledged “no strings” support for an African plan to develop a continent-wide high speed rail network, and said China has set aside $2 billion for an African Development Fund.
China would also support Africa’s plans to boost its aviation and telecoms sectors.
“All China’s support for Africa will come with no political strings attached,” Li said. “We will not interfere with Africa’s internal affairs or ask something impossible of Africa.”
NBF – China is serious in that they do not care about Africa’s politics or governments. They just want to build the rail and increase the trade.
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