In recent years, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s pulsating metropolis, has been the scene of an unprecedented boom as this East African country undergoes an economic miracle. This is where a small but growing middle class, whose life style is predominantly Western, lives. And it is here that art and culture thrive. However, it is quite a different picture in the less developed rural areas. Millions are dying of starvation; only a few have access to education and health services.
There are many reasons why the rapid economic development has not improved the living standard of people throughout the country. One reason is Ethiopia’s topography, which symbolises the contradictions in this landlocked country: mountainous regions with 4,500 metre-high summits, on the one hand, and low-lying terrain well below sea level, on the other. These geographical conditions restrict the mobility of the population. But all that is now set to change.
Ethiopia is currently constructing a north-south rail connection passing through a remote mountainous region that was especially difficult to reach until now. In the town of Awash, almost 1,000 metres above sea level, the new railway line branches off to the north from the line that connects Addis Ababa in the centre of the country with the Republic of Djibouti on the Red Sea to the east. From Awash, the new railway line leads to the town of Hara Gebeya near Weldiya, 389 kilometres further north. It overcomes an altitude of 1,100 metres along this route as well as closing the divide between northern and southern Ethiopia in terms of infrastructure until now.
The mountainous region is connected to the railway network
As Head of the Johannesburg representative office, Joseph Mbuyi monitors the African market for KfW IPEX-Bank. For him, the new railway line is a key project for Ethiopia: “It’s essential that the mountainous region be connected to the railway network. With this supraregional railway, it is for the first time possible to transport humans and goods from A to B. And this establishes the preconditions for industrial centres, which will in turn generate local jobs.”
Together with other banks, KfW IPEX-Bank is providing the Ethiopian National Railway Network with a tailor-made complex financial package to get this 1.7 Billion US dollars investment up and running. It is contributing 357.5 million US dollars itself. “This constitutes the currently largest loan to be granted in the Mobility and Transport sector department,” comments Joseph Mbuyi on the sheer scale of the loan.
European firms provide material and know-how
This mammoth project is not for amateurs. Since the Turkish construction company Yapi Merkezi has successfully accomplished a number of difficult railway projects of this kind, it was tasked with building this single track railway. “The enormous differences in altitude posed various challenges,” says Erdem Arioglu, vice-chairman of Yapi Merkezi executive board. “But we found ways of mastering the complex route of the railway. The railway line passes over 51 bridges and through 12 tunnels, one of which is the longest tunnel in Ethiopia.”
Apart from the railway line itself with its tunnels and bridges, sites for engine sheds, warehouses and railway station buildings also had to be constructed. For these immense feats of engineering, around 99 million cubic metres of earth had to be excavated. The construction of this important rail corridor took around 20 million man hours to complete. The expertise and materials did not only come from Turkey; without exports from Europe, this task could not have been shouldered. Companies from Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden were involved in this joint project.
Milestones en route to an emerging country
The railway line has created many jobs for qualified staff already. Local experts are trained in the operation and maintenance of the new railway line. “The transfer of know-how is important,” stresses Joseph Mbuyi. “In fact it is essential to ensure sustainable infrastructure development. Ethiopia plans to leave its status as a developing country behind it and become an emerging country by 2025.”
As part of the planning and construction process of the railway line the international consulting firm ARUP carried out a comprehensive environmental and social impact assessment. Training programmes for example related to jobs in the railway service, but also in agriculture were set up for the population living near the new line. Moreover, the safety of the local population is a primary concern.
They were informed in their language how to safely cross the new and unfamiliar railway line. Signs with simple symbols and words were also put up. 77 subways were integrated into the route to enable local people to drive their pack animals along their usual transport routes and reach the other side of the railway line safely. The population was asked what colour the bridges should be painted. Ethiopia’s national colour blue was chosen.
To date, large stretches of the railway line have already been completed and another almost 40 kilometres of secondary track are planned. The majority of overhead wires and electrification systems are already in place. The first test trains have used the railway line. However, when exactly the entire railway line can be supplied with power is not yet known. The construction teams are working on this task.
Ethiopia is rightly proud of this important infrastructure project. The government has invited the heads of state from other African countries to inspect the railway line and is emphasising its im-portance for connecting up the region. Not only trade and industry stand to profit from goods trains. In future, passenger trains will improve the mobility and flexibility of the population in general. Moreover, tourists will also be able to use the new rail connection to admire the beauty of Ethiopia’s remote mountainous regions in the long term. 389 kilometres of track can set the ball rolling and pave the way for the future.