Ethiopia and Djibouti have inaugurated their first electric railway. It is expected to boost trade in the region. The railway is the first step of a planned 5,000-kilometer rail project.
The 750-kilometer (460-mile) railway, built by two Chinese companies, will link Addis Ababa to the Red Sea port of Djibouti City in about 10 hours. This will put an end to the exhausting three-day journey that citizens of the two countries have had to endure when travelling from Addis Ababa to neighboring Djibouti. The project cost 3.7 billion US dollars, of which 70 percent was funded by China, while the Ethiopian government accounted for the remaining amount.
At the inauguration ceremony on Wednesday, Mekonnen Getachew, project manager of the Ethiopian Railways Corporation, called the railroad a 'game changer,' because it will accelerate growth in Ethiopia. The economy of the country in the Horn of Africa country grew by 10.2 percent last year, the fastest rate in the world.
Djibouti, the smallest state in the Horn of Africa, sees the project as the start of a trans-African railway crossing the continent from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, a journey which takes three weeks by boat.
Hope for a better future
The residents of the two countries have placed great hopes on the railroad. "We're so excited! It takes two or three days for a truck to come from Djibouti. The driver doesn't answer his phone. We don't know where he is and that can be a bit of a nightmare," said Ethiopian importer Tingrit Worku. He drives one of the 1,500 trucks that lumber along the road daily, carrying 90 percent of imports and exports from landlocked Ethiopia to the port. Djibouti is a key trade hub to Asia, Europe and the rest of Africa.
Chinese ambassador to Ethiopia La Yifan said in a statement that the railroad is built according to Chinese standards and with Chinese technology. He said there will be other projects of this kind built by China in the near future. According to the diplomat, many people will benefit from the railroad. It is a win-win situation for both countries in regard to economic integration. Ethiopia gains access to the sea and Djibouti gains access to Ethiopia's emerging market of 95 million people, the ambassador said.
The infrastructure will first undergo a three-month test period with no paying passengers and carrying only cargo. As soon as the line is fully functional, uniformed Chinese conductors will welcome passengers to platforms of newly built stations all along the route, while Chinese technicians and stationmasters will keep things running in the background.
"We don't yet have the management experience. We have a management contract with Chinese staff for five years, with an Ethiopian counterpart in training," said Getachew. The effectiveness of security measures will also be gauged during this period, as the railway has to go through war-torn countries such as South Sudan or the Central African Republic.
Coletta Wanjohi contributed to this article.