Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway unlocks regional commercial potential

By Chen Ziqi China Plus Published: 2018-05-14 17:31:12
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Reporter: Chen Ziqi; Narrated by Nillah Nyakoa

the Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway has been successfully running since January 1, 2018. [Photo: from China Plus]

The Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway has been successfully running since January 1, 2018. [Photo: from China Plus]

The Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway is the first international cross-border standard gauge electric railway in Africa, connecting the capitals of Ethiopia and Djibouti. With the help of two Chinese construction firms, the railway has been running since January this year. Despite bringing mammoth benefits to the local economy, the successful operation of the Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway also marks a milestone for China in accomplishing the transformation from Made in China to Operation by China.

[Photo: from Agencies]

[Photo: from Agencies]

The Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway was designed to enable landlocked Ethiopia to reach maritime trade routes, and it's expected to act as a catalyst in accelerating the economic growth of intra-African countries and realize the continent's untapped commercial potential. The Red Sea port of Djibouti is a crucial transport hub to Ethiopia since 90% of the country's imports and exports depend upon it. Prior to the operation of the Railway, it took almost a week to get from Ethiopia to Djibouti. Aboudaker Omar Hadi is chairman of the Djibouti Ports and Free Zones Authority. He says "building the railway was a must".

[Photo: from China Plus]

[Photo: from China Plus]

With a length of over 750 kilometers, the Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway has been successfully running since January 1, 2018. The speed of the passenger trains can reach 120 kilometers an hour, cargo trains 80 kilometers an hour. Now, the time needed to transport goods from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa to Djibouti has been cut from around 7 days to just 10 hours, saving two thirds of the cost.

This project not only boosts the regional economy and improves efficiency, it has also accelarated the transformation of Chinese railway building enterprises from constructor to railway operator. Built between 2011 and 2016, this railway line was the joint effort of a consortium of two Chinese firms, the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation and the China Railway Group.

[Photo: from China Plus]

[Photo: from China Plus]

During the railway construction, a myriad of challenges and obstacles had to be addressed, such as dealing with unstable electric power, incomplete local laws and regulations, avoiding livestock trampling over the tracks, carrying out investigations and research into scientifically increasing the train's speed and their capacity for freight weight, providing skills training to local employees and preparing for the final commercial operation.

Zhang Zhenhai is vice president of the Ethiopian branch of the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation. He explains the importance of this project.

"Our fundamental goal was to build a railway that would stimulate the economic development of the region. Furthermore, being able to operate a railway line is the most important component of our company's latest agenda and also helps extend our business scale."

The construction of the railway was not merely a commercial decision for these Chinese companies. They have also taken responsibility for improving social wellbeing by creating job opportunities and providing humanitarian aid in the event of natural disasters. In July 2016, the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation and China Railway Group signed a contract with a local company, the Ethiopian Railway Corporation, which included a six-year obligation of operation and maintenance, as well as providing two years of technical support.

Chinese staff members from the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation and the China Railway Group were testing the rail operation.

Chinese staff members from the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation and the China Railway Group were testing the railway operation. [Photo: from IC]

By the end of January, some 600 Chinese staff had made valuable contribution to the operation and maintenance of the railway line. They have also played a vital role in disseminating their knowledge and experience to local employees. Under the terms of the contract, the number of Chinese staff will gradually decrease as more local employees compete to fill their positions. Eventually, the Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway will be completely managed by local workers. Wang Tao is director of Human Resources of the China Railway Group for this project. He explains.

"The Ethiopian Railway Corporation has been negotiating with us about recruiting 2200 local employees, and they will be allocated in various positions along the entire railway line. We plan to provide our local employees with both theoretical and practical training.” Wang Tao, “When they first start work, they will learn the relevant knowledge and concepts. Later, they will work with experienced Chinese staff and see how to carry out their duties. Normally, one Chinese member of staff will coach three or four local employees, especially when it comes to drivers."

A train conductor of the Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway line [Photo: from IC]

A train conductor of the Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway line [Photo: from IC]

To provide localized services and achieve success in Africa, certain adjustments have had to be made in administrative measures. Tizita Alamreow is a 23-year train conductor of the railway line. She says she is happy to work there after she graduated from school.

"I am very happy with my work. The Chinese staffs are very friendly to us, and we are happy to work together. I am learning from them. I communicate well with passengers as well. I tell them where the cafeteria and toilet are. I love this job."

62-year old watch maker Kaled Abdullah is a regular passenger on this railway line. Living in Dire Dawa, a commercial center of Ethiopia, he takes the train twice a week from his home to the capital of the country. He speaks highly of the train services, and he says he will recommend it to his relatives and friends.

"The service is very good. I am happy with it. I do not need to take coach any more. I told my friends there is cafeteria, WC, everything. It seems like a plane. I love Chinese people, because they are intelligent and their work is fantastic. I am telling you the truth."

[Photo: from IC]

[Photo: from IC]

At the moment, passenger trains will run twice a day, with one freight train available. After the first month of operation, the railway has transported some 4000 passengers.

The Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway project is one of the achievements of the Johannesburg Summit of the China-African Cooperation and the Belt and Road initiative. It is also a symbol of Sino-African strategic cooperation when it comes to infrastructure projects, which include railways, highways and regional airline networks. Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said during the inaugural ceremony of the Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway that the line would significantly expand development and enhance competitiveness in international markets. Plans have been laid out to connect the line to Kenya, South Sudan and Sudan by 2020, which can only benefit more regions and people along the route.

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