Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway signals new era of Chinese aid in infrastructure construction

By Zhu Xiaolei in Addis Ababa Source:Global Times Published: 2016/10/26 19:08:39

The Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway is launched on October 5. Photo: Zhu Xiaolei/GT

The Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway is launched on October 5. Photo: Zhu Xiaolei/GT

Locals take the new railway train. Photo: Zhu Xiaolei/GT

Locals take the new railway train. Photo: Zhu Xiaolei/GT

The Chinese-built and -financed Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway, the first electrified railway in Africa, is expected to enter full commercial operations at the end of this year. The railway has fully adopted Chinese standard and is regarded as a "game changer" for regional development.

From the steward's uniforms to the design of the train tickets and the train's interior decor, the newly launched railway linking landlocked Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa to the Red Sea nation of Djibouti closely mimics Chinese standards.

The electrified Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway was built by Chinese companies and launched early on a trial basis this month.

This railway is often compared with the Tanzania-Zambia Railway, built by China between 1970 and 1975. It was the first railway built by China in Africa and is seen as a monument to Sino-African friendship and the starting point of bilateral cooperation.

The project was financed through an interest-free loan of $500 million from China, at a time China's average per capita yearly income was only $100. In 2011, China cancelled half of the remaining debt.

The Ethiopian government sees the railway as a "game changer" and a "road map" for the two countries to attain middle-income status. They believe that the railway will help improve the two countries' social and economic development.

China is the largest trading partner of Ethiopia, one of the world's fastest-growing economies which sees almost 90 percent of its imports and exports moving through Djibouti.

With a designed top speed of 120 kilometers per hour, the 752-kilometer long Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway will help cut cargo travel time between the two countries from seven days to just 10 hours.

It was designed, constructed and supervised completely according to Chinese standards with a total investment of $4 billion, with more than 70 percent of the funds provided by the Export-Import Bank of China.

Last year, beating out their Western rivals, a consortium of two contractors, the China Railway Group Limited and the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), won the bid to operate and manage the railway for six years.

It is the first time China has exported an entire railway industrial chain. At the same time, railways are also being built by Chinese firms in other African countries such as Kenya and Nigeria. The adoption of modern railways using Chinese standards is expected to boost Sino-African cooperation to new heights.

Chinese standard

"The Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway is full of Chinese factors. Its construction and initial operation are all managed by Chinese enterprises. Such one-stop service is a world first," said Xu Youding, Vice General Manager and Chief Engineer of China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group Co. Ltd, (CREEC) which took charge of the railway's planning and design.

"The export of Chinese standards means the export of domestically-made design, construction technology, high-tech communication signals, electrified equipment, locomotives and operation model," Xu told the Global Times.

After the first six years, Chinese enterprises will continue to provide two years of technological support. Now, a team of about 1,000 Chinese are in charge of the operation. At the same time, in Ethiopia alone, more than 2,000 locals are receiving specialist training to be train drivers, stewards and maintenance staff, so as to prepare for the operations' gradual handover to the government in six years.

Mekonnen Getachew, project manager with the Ethiopian Railways Corporation, highly praised this system. "This is a partnership, rather than just a simple sale of a product or service to us in which once the sellers leave, the project is abandoned," Getachew told the Global Times.

The  single-track, 1,860-kilometer Tanzania-Zambia Railway has offered some lessons. Due to a lack of maintenance, in addition to decrepit lines and old locomotives, the line's cargo tonnage and passengers have fallen to half of the target tonnage. Many businesses have moved to using more efficient road transport, as trucks out-compete rail transport in the region, according to a 2014 report by the China Daily.

Zhou Guoti, an operation manager with CREEC, believes that talent training is key to the line's future operation.

"We must learn the lessons from the Tanzania-Zambia Railway and sustain maintenance efforts. Human resources are key for its operation. This will be a great challenge," Zhou said.

He explained that the railway will be the only line in Ethiopia since its last railway shut down decades ago and many of the locals involved in the project knew little about rail transport previously.

The railway, 670 kilometers of which are in Ethiopia, has created about 48,000 local jobs during the construction process and is expected to provide thousands of permanent posts once the line begins commercial operations at end of this year.

But Xu said the challenges are still great. "We are not only building railways for them, but also building a talent pool for these countries, so as to keep the line's operation sustainable," Xu said.


The railway has been welcomed by locals, many of whom have only recently seen trains for the first time. The stations have also become a scenic spot for locals and especially newlyweds to take pictures.

Many passengers who have ridden the train during its trial operation period expressed their admiration.

Dawet, an Ethiopian journalist who has been reporting on the project, gave it the thumbs-up. "We have had no trains for more than three decades and could only depend on carts for travel," he told the Global Times, adding that there is currently just one road connecting Djibouti with Ethiopia.

The cargo railway will definitely help reduce transport costs and bring down the price of commodities, Dawet explained. "Chinese-built railways for us and financed for us, we really appreciate it very much," he noted.

However, there are also some negative voices. Some media reported that China was "dumping its outdated technology and unwanted products" onto African countries.

Getachew believes such accusations are ignorant, pointing out that Chinese enterprises contracted the project exactly within Ethiopian law. "Actually, it's us who are making the choices, not China. We chose their technology based on our transportation plans," he said.

"We have made lots of feasibility studies. The project quality is evaluated by the Chinese side, the Ethiopian side and an independent third party, everything is transparent."

Low cost and high speed are the advantages of Chinese standards. According to consulting firms, completing the project within four years for just $4 billion was originally thought to be nearly impossible.

The construction was harsh due to the country's tropical climate and desert landscape. To have the railway endure Ethiopia's droughts and floods, to minimize damage to national parks and the migration routes of wild animals, special overpasses and tunnels were built. 

The railway has won the Chinese people greater trust in the region. Some local project managers even asked Chinese engineers to check the blueprints of their own homes.

Chinese diligence has also impressed many local workers. An Ethiopian who drove for the railway project said "Chinese are always working, they can have future."

"Chinese teach us skills. I must learn it well, they are important for us and for the country," said an Ethiopian apprentice who worked under the guidance of a Chinese engineer.



Win-win result

The line has brought new hope as well as concrete benefits to the people living along the line. In 2014 when holes were being created for the line in a village called Furi, a spring of fresh water appeared, pleasing the villagers who had to walk a long way to collect water previously.

During the whole construction process, Chinese workers have made a total of 19 wells for the villages along the line, and built country roads as long as 400 kilometers, and renovated playgrounds as for schools.

The second most populous African nation after Nigeria, Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world, though it has seen double-digit economic growth in recent years. Now it is putting a great effort into developing its public infrastructure.

Getachew said the country plans to built a railway network 2,000 kilometers long by 2025. Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has publicly expressed hope to continue working with Chinese enterprises.

China has a popular saying: "Want to get rich? First build a road." Getachew agrees with this idea, saying that the country is learning from China's development experience.

"With transnational railways connecting African countries, we can exchange labor, products and resources," he said.

The success of the Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway will also open a new global market for Chinese railway technology and services. In addition, the railways will also bring opportunities for Chinese non-railway industries.

Along the railway, some large industrial parks and logistics centers are planned. On the opening day of the railway on October 5, Xu Youding representing CREC signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ethiopian industrial park development authority to build a industrial park that is supposed to cover 84.5 square kilometers.

The park will become a new town that will include logistics, trade center, manufacturing factories, education and training bases and residential areas. Many enterprises from China, Turkey and India have made inquiries and plan to settle in the park.

According to official figures, China surpassed the US to become Africa's largest trade partner in 2009. In 2014, mutual trade volume totaled $220 billion, 22 times that in 2000, and the investment from China into Africa exceeded $30 billion. However, trade and investment both dropped greatly last year due to the Chinese economic slowdown.

Newspaper headline: Changing Africa

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

blog comments powered by Disqus