Key Dji­bouti-Ethiopia rail line near com­ple­tion


The lead­ers of Dji­bouti and Ethiopia will over­see the com­ple­tion of a rail­way link­ing their two cap­i­tals on Thurs­day, with the am­bi­tion that the link might even­tu­ally ex­tend across the con­ti­nent to West Africa.

Dji­bouti’s Pres­i­dent Is­mail 0mar Guelleh and Ethiopia’s Prime Min­is­ter Haile­mariam De­salegn will at­tend the cer­e­mo­nial lay­ing of the last track in the 752-kilo­me­ter (481-mile) rail­way, fi­nanced and built by China, link­ing the port cap­i­tal of Dji­bouti with land­locked Ethiopia’s cap­i­tal Ad­dis Ababa.

The first sched­uled train is ex­pected to use the desert line in Oc­to­ber, re­duc­ing trans­port time be­tween the cap­i­tals to less than 10 hours, rather than the two days it cur­rently takes for heavy goods ve­hi­cles us­ing a con­gested moun­tain road.

“Some 1,500 trucks use the road ev­ery day be­tween Dji­bouti and Ethiopia. In five years, this fig­ure will rise to 8,000,” said Abubaker Hadi, chair­man of Dji­bouti’s Port Author­ity. “This is not pos­si­ble, this is why we need the rail­way.”

With a ca­pac­ity of 3,500 tonnes — seven times the ca­pac­ity of the old line at its peak — the new elec­tri­fied line will mainly be used for trans­port­ing goods to Africa’s sec­ond-most pop­u­lous na­tion.

Ethiopia’s econ­omy is grow­ing fast, with al­most 90 per­cent of its im­ports go­ing through Dji­bouti. Both coun­tries ben­e­fit from eco­nomic in­te­gra­tion, with Ethiopia gain­ing ac­cess to the sea and Dji­bouti gain­ing ac­cess to Ethiopia’s emerg­ing mar­ket of 95 mil­lion peo­ple.

“Ethiopia is an im­por­tant coun­try for us,” said Dji­bouti’s Trans­port Min­is­ter Ahmed Moussa Has­san. “It is the main cus­tomer for our lo­gis­tics fa­cil­i­ties and this new rail­way line will strengthen trade.”

The new line is in fact the res­ur­rec­tion of an old one, built in 1917 by the Franco-Ethiopian Rail­way Com­pany, but decades later it fell into dis­re­pair and only worked er­rat­i­cally. Trains would reg­u­larly de­rail and it could take as long as five days to make the jour­ney be­tween the two cap­i­tal cities.

Some aban­doned parts of the old line are still vis­i­ble in Ad­dis Ababa and in cen­tral Dji­bouti.

Dji­bouti’s Am­bi­tions

An­other new line link­ing Dji­bouti and the north­ern Ethiopian town of Mekele is also due to be built, but this is not the ex­tent of the project’s am­bi­tion.

Hadi says the rail­way is a step to­wards a trans-con­ti­nen­tal line reach­ing all the way to the Gulf of Guinea, in West Africa.

“We are al­ready the gate­way to Ethiopia. We in­tend to con­tinue this rail­way line to South Su­dan, the Cen­tral African Repub­lic (CAR) and Cameroon to connect the Red Sea to the At­lantic Ocean,” said Hadi.

Dji­bouti, the small­est state in the Horn of Africa, is em­bark­ing on large in­fra­struc­ture projects, build­ing six new ports and two air­ports in the hope of be­com­ing the com­mer­cial hub of East Africa.

“In­fra­struc­ture is com­ing very late to Africa. It is im­pos­si­ble for a truck to cross the con­ti­nent. To trans­port goods from the east coast to the west coast of Africa, it is nec­es­sary to cir­cle the con­ti­nent by boat,” Hadi said of a sea voy­age that can take more than three weeks.

A trans-Africa rail­way is fea­si­ble “in seven or eight years,” he said, as long as con­flicts in South Su­dan and CAR come to an end.

Liu Xiaoyan, com­mer­cial direc­tor of the China Civil En­gi­neer­ing Con­struc­tion Cor­po­ra­tion, who is in charge of the Dji­bouti-Ad­dis line, said his com­pany is ready to con­tinue the work.

“We want to show off Chi­nese tech­nol­ogy to ev­ery­one, es­pe­cially to Africa,” he said, adding that it was also an op­por­tu­nity to strengthen China’s trade ties with Africa and its pres­ence on the con­ti­nent.


This pic­ture taken on May 5 shows work in progress on the new rail­way tracks link­ing Dji­bouti with Ad­dis Ababa. The lead­ers of the two coun­tries are to over­see the com­ple­tion on Thurs­day.

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