AFRICANGLOBE – Camels rather than locomotives lumber over the railway tracks in this remote desert, famously traversed by storied French adventurers Arthur Rimbaud and Henry de Monfreid in the early 20th century.
The old French-built railway that connected Addis Ababa, the capital of landlocked Ethiopia, to the Red Sea port of Djibouti, is now being replaced by a Chinese-built electrified railway, a bold project that seeks to boost Ethiopia’s commercial exports.
The new project also symbolises a shift in Ethiopia’s international relations.
“You see nowadays that the dice are thrown differently. Chinese, Indian (and) Turkish interests are now taking over… times have changed,” said Hugues Fontaine, author of the recently published book “Un Train en Afrique”, or African Train, about the historic Ethiopian train.
Indeed, Ethiopia is casting its dice eastward — seeking investors to help it achieve its grandiose Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP), which seeks to boost economic growth and achieve middle income status by 2025.
The construction of the railway is a key component of the GTP: a series of eight rail corridors totalling 4,744 kilometres (2,948 miles), creating a series of key trade routes to neighbouring Kenya, South Sudan, Sudan and — crucially — to Djibouti’s port.
Two Chinese companies are contracted to build the $2.8 billion (2.15 billion euro) line connecting Addis Ababa to the Djiboutian border by 2016, and Turkish and Brazilian companies are slated to construct other segments of the nation-wide rail network.
“We are working day and night,” said Zacharia Jemal, project manager working for the Ethiopian Railways Corporation.
Zacharia said the project will create 5,000 local jobs, and allow Ethiopia to boost exports of key commodities such as coffee and sesame. It also offers the opportunity to get Ethiopian workers trained by engineers from the Chinese Civil Engineering Construction Corporation.
The company is building the line from Mieso to the Djibouti border at a cost of $1.2 billion (923 million euros), of which 70 percent is financed by the Export-Import Bank of China and 30 percent by the Ethiopian government.
Another Chinese company will build the Addis Ababa to Mieso segment.
While the economic benefits of the train — which will be used for both freight and passenger transport, replacing slow and costly truck transport — is widely recognised, some lament the seemingly inevitable death of the historic French-built diesel-powered train, which went out of service in 2008 after years of neglect.
“In terms of the economy, the (new) train could be very profitable for Ethiopia, one machine could replace 10 trucks… and (maintenance) is easier and more cost-effective,” said Josef Petros, who worked for the French railway company for more than 30 years.
But he said that if the old train ceases to operate, it will be a great loss for Ethiopia and for Dire Dawa, the commercial town in northeastern Ethiopia where the main train station and workshops were headquartered. The new station is slated to be built just outside Dire Dawa.
“Dire Dawa will suffer,” said Josef, who is now the director of the French cultural centre in the city.
The train station — known locally as “la gare” — and the workshops still stand, unused for years. Employees still arrive at work diligently just after dawn every day, only to sit among the abandoned train cars and imported French machinery, seemingly frozen in time.
They still receive a monthly stipend from the company, which is now run by the Ethiopian government.
They hold out hope that the diesel train will be revived one day, but the European Commission-funded project to rehabilitate the old railway at a cost of $55 million has stalled due to a contractual dispute.
Nonetheless, the 750 employees — down from 2,000 — of the old line maintain a sense of pride at having worked for the French company. Many speak French and retain an extraordinary technical knowledge of the ancient trains.
“When you worked for the train, you were considered to be a very important person,” said Josef. “If you had a son or a brother working for the railways, the whole family was very proud of this.”
It brought many employees a sense of pride — in addition to a generous salary — to work on a train that was conceived by Ethiopia’s first modern patriarch, emperor Menelik, who pursued the ambitious rail project to introduce modernity in Ethiopia, boost economic productivity and show the world “that the Ethiopian state was something to be considered seriously”, according to Fontaine.
Similarly, the new electric train will launch Ethiopia into a modern era of rail transport. It will be one of the first electric trains in East Africa, will run at a speed of 120 kilometres an hour and will be both easier and cheaper to maintain, as it will be mechanised and rely on locally-produced hydropower to run.
It’s also a source of pride for the workers involved in boosting development and contributing to Ethiopia’s industrialising economy.
“It is good to be involved in this nationalistic project, it’s historic,” said project manager Zacharia, driving to a building site for the new train where Chinese men in hard hats show Ethiopian workers how to use Chinese-imported excavators.
But whether the legacy of the Chinese in Ethiopia will have as strong an imprint as the French remains to be seen. Unlike the French, Chinese workers will not settle in Ethiopia permanently, and the cultural exchanges are limited to simple greetings exchanged in Mandarin between Chinese and Ethiopian workers.
“This influence will stay on in history, but it will not be as significant,” said Josef.