AFRICANGLOBE – Ethiopia is in the race to become the first African country after South Africa to lay down an electrified rail network that will link 49 towns and cities.
It has already completed one of Africa’s first light rail mass transit systems, in the capital, Addis Ababa.
The country-wide scheme is part of a grand experiment in nation building through infrastructure that was launched by the government of the late Meles Zenawi and is being continued by his Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front party under the leadership of the prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn.
The blueprint for Ethiopia’s modernisation is contained in its five-year Growth and Development Plan. The two main elements are an increase in agricultural output to earn export revenue and to prevent a recurrence of the famines of the 1980s, and the construction of modern power and transport systems.
The goals of the infrastructure programme are to increase generating capacity fourfold to 10GW, to construct 16,000km of paved roads and to lay 2,500km of standard gauge electrified rail track – a target that was later increased to about 5,000km.
There is a good deal of interdependence among these aims: for instance, the plan to build an electrified network depends on schemes such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam to supply the necessary power.
In 2010, when the present five-year plan was launched, the stated aim was to increase freight capacity by at least five million tons. The cost of constructing the network was put at about $2.5bn over seven years. Both of the productivity and the cost have since risen dramatically.
For nearly a century Ethiopia has had only one railway: a 1,000mm narrow-gauge link between Addis Ababa and the port of Djibouti that was constructed by the French in the 1920s. Ethiopia is a landlocked country, so this link is the principal route by which goods come and go. However, that line relies on diesel locomotives and partly owing to its poor load bearing capacity it transports only 240,000 tons of freight a year.