Camels rather than locomotives lumber over the remote Ethiopian desert, famously traversed by the French adventurers Arthur Rimbaud and Henry de Monfreid in the early 20th century.
The old French-built railway that connected Addis Ababa, the capital of landlocked Ethiopia, to the Red Sea port of Djibouti, is now being replaced by a Chinese-built electrified railway, a bold project that seeks to boost Ethiopia’s commercial exports.
The new project also symbolizes a shift in Ethiopia’s international relations.
“You see nowadays that the dice are thrown differently. Chinese, Indian [and] Turkish interests are now taking over ... times have changed,” said Hugues Fontaine, author of the recently published Un Train en Afrique, or “African Train,” a book bout the historic train built by the Imperial Railway Company of Ethiopia.
Ethiopia is casting its dice eastward — seeking investors to help it achieve its grandiose Growth and Transformation Plan, which seeks to boost economic growth and achieve middle-income status by 2025.
The construction of the railway is a key component of the plan: a series of eight rail corridors totaling 4,744km, creating a series of key trade routes to Kenya, South Sudan, Sudan and — crucially — to Djibouti’s port.
Two Chinese companies are contracted to build the US$2.8 billion line connecting Addis Ababa to the Djiboutian border by 2016, while Turkish and Brazilian firms are to construct other segments of the nationwide rail network.
“We are working day and night,” said project manager Jemal Zacharia Jemal of the Ethiopian Railways Corporation.
Zacharia said the project will create 5,000 jobs and allow Ethiopia to boost exports of key commodities such as coffee and sesame. It also offers the opportunity to get Ethiopian workers trained by engineers from the China Civil Engineering Construction Corp (中國土木工程集團有限公司).
The company is building the line from Mieso to the Djibouti border at a cost of US$1.2 billion, 70 percent of which is financed by the Export-Import Bank of China (中國進出口銀行) and 30 percent by the Ethiopian government.
While the economic benefits of the train — which will be used for both freight and passenger transport, replacing slow and costly truck transport — is widely recognized, some lament the seemingly inevitable death of the historic French-built diesel-powered train, which went out of service in 2008.
“In terms of the economy, the [new] train could be very profitable for Ethiopia, one machine could replace 10 trucks ... and [maintenance] is easier and more cost-effective,” said Josef Petros, who worked for the French railway company for more than 30 years.
However, he said that if the old train ceases to operate, it will be a great loss for Ethiopia and for Dire Dawa, the commercial town in northeastern Ethiopia where the main train station and workshops were headquartered. The new station is slated to be built just outside Dire Dawa, a town renowned for its French atmosphere.
“Dire Dawa will suffer,” said Josef, who is now the director of the city’s French cultural center.
The station — known locally as la gare — and the workshops still stand, unused for years. Employees still arrive at work diligently just after dawn every day, only to sit among the abandoned train cars and imported French machinery.
They still receive a monthly stipend from the firm, which is now run by the Ethiopian government.
They hope that the diesel train will be revived one day, but the European Commission-funded project to rehabilitate the old railway at a cost of US$55 million has stalled due to a contractual dispute.
Nonetheless, the 750 employees — down from 2,000 — of the old line maintain a sense of pride at having worked for the French.
“When you worked for the train, you were considered to be a very important person,” Josef said.
It brought many employees a sense of pride — in addition to a generous salary — to work for the French on a train that was conceived by Ethiopia’s first modern patriarch, Emperor Menelik II, who pursued the rail project to modernize Ethiopia and show the world “that the Ethiopian state was something to be considered seriously,” Fontaine said.
Similarly, the new electric train will launch Ethiopia into a modern era of rail transport. It will be one of the first electric trains in East Africa, will run at a speed of 120kph and will be both easier and cheaper to maintain, as it will be mechanized and rely on locally produced hydropower to run.
It is a also a source of pride for the workers involved in boosting development.
“It is good to be involved in this nationalistic project, it’s historic,” Zacharia said.
However, whether the legacy of the Chinese in Ethiopia will have as strong an imprint as the French remains to be seen.