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Letter from Africa: 'I gave up on catching the train in Ethiopia'
BBC News [link]
9 September 2019




In our series of letters from African journalists, Ismail Einashe writes about his failed attempt to catch a train in Ethiopia despite the hype around a new Chinese-built railway.

In Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, it is hard to miss the large advertising boards along the traffic-clogged streets that promise "new railway, new life".

The signs are for the $4.5bn (£3.6bn) Chinese-built Addis-Djibouti standard gauge railway (SGR) connecting landlocked Ethiopia's 100 million people with tiny Djibouti on the Red Sea.

The 750km (465 mile) railway line began operations in January 2018 and is Africa's first electrified cross-border railway.

Trains hit camels

For Ethiopia this is more than just a railway project, it is the crown jewel in the development ambitions of Africa's fastest-growing economy, which aspires to reach middle-income status by the mid-2020s.

But since the SGR opened it has experienced financial and operational difficulties.

In January train services were halted for a while over security concerns in the Afar region, following protests against the government and ethnic clashes between Somalis and Afars.

And last year a stoppage was caused by trains colliding with camels, leading to pastoralists demanding the government compensate them for the loss of their precious livestock.

Visiting the old French-built station

Yet ever since I heard the SGR had opened in Ethiopia I was desperate to take the train, which departs every other day at 0800 local time.

I had planned to travel from Addis Ababa to Dire Dawa, a city in Ethiopia I had not seen in over 25 years.

But my excitement soon turned to frustration when I realised how difficult it would be to buy a ticket - in neighbouring Kenya you go on the SGR website, buy your ticket and pay via the money mobile service, M-Pesa, but in Ethiopia things were a little more difficult.

I went on its SGR website and only found a number for a ticket office at the old French-built Addis Terminus in the heart of the city.

I kept calling, but no-one picked up. In the end, I braved the torrential rain to go to the grand old station.

Once there, however, trying to find the ticket office also proved difficult. The guards looked bemused by my inquiry.

When I did find it on the first floor, the woman behind the wooden desk seemed equally bemused by my request for a return ticket.

She told me to wait for her manager. He in turn said they did not sell the train tickets - but if I wanted bus tickets, I could buy those.

If it was the train I really wanted, he said I should go to the new Chinese-built station outside Addis Ababa and buy my ticket there.

The manager assured me the SGR was working, but advised I arrive early - by 06:30.

I felt reassured, until the next problem - finding the location of this new station.

It is not as easy as you may imagine, first of all the station is not yet on Google Maps and locals seemed clueless.

Forced to fly

At last a hotel receptionist found me a taxi driver in the know, who said it was a 90-minute drive away - and would cost $18, almost as expensive as the train ticket.

So we set off on a cold, wet, dark Tuesday at 05:00.

We drove past the changing landscape of Bole district in Addis Ababa, where I used to live - but it's now very different: full of huge, newly built hotels and malls.

We drove along a newly built road for several kilometres before the large Furi-Labu railway station appeared from nowhere.

The building, which looked like it had been parachuted directly from China to Ethiopia, was completely deserted - only a soldier stood guard, with a few Chinese workers roaming around.

It felt eerie, as if abandoned. I walked up the huge concrete steps and spoke to the soldier who told me the station had been closed for at least "two weeks" as there were technical issues with track near Dire Dawa.

There would be no trains that morning.

I returned to the hotel - again covered in mud after torrential rain - left with no choice but to fly.

But the internet was down - not an unusual situation in Ethiopia these days - so I had to book my flight by phone.

And by the time I should have been arriving at Dire Dawa's new station at 15.50 that day, I was instead in the departure lounge at Addis Ababa airport waiting for my gate to be announced.
 

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^^ Sigh
 

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Are any of the facts in his article disputed? If not, we have to suck it up and figure out why a billion dollar investment is sitting idle. This thing should be printing money. Blaming westerners is not going to solve anything.

typical western bashing....because it is a Chinese-built infrastructure.

to give more credit to their garbage, they hire a black journalist (https://www.ismaileinashe.com/).

dont contribute for their propaganda, posting their sh*t here.
 

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In China they don't have these kind of problems, the villagers would be arrested, charged and taken to jail for letting their livestock wander on the railway. eelvation has more to do with the terrain.
 

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^^the dead donkey...
Was that poor donkey hit by the train on the spot ? Or, it just chose to die there? Or, the dead donkey was brought by the owner to rest there ? The donkey looks intact - no blood sputtering. So strange !!
 

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Maybe they should lower the speed limit even more to not interfere with people using the track as cattle trail.
The trains already drive in low speed, 60mph from what I'v read before, the whole point of having a railway line is to travel fast, so that shouldn't have been the case. The rural communities along the railway do't see this train as their property, because they don't get any benefits from the rail way, there are only 15 passenger stations to serve the 400 km line, and all of them are serving major towns along the way, nothing for the rural communities or the small towns on the way, so most people in the rural communities don't give a damn thing about this railway, if they open up stations and create employment in maintenance, security, administration and service for people along the way, this resentment will go away.
 

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In China they don't have these kind of problems, the villagers would be arrested, charged and taken to jail for letting their livestock wander on the railway. Elevation has more to do with the terrain.
In all fairness, I was being more facetious than serious. But actually, I think the preference for elevated tracks has to do with the fact that it makes straighter alignments easier, by simply going over little geographical features and that it occupies less land than building on the land. I recall reading that there is also something to do with avoiding the need to wait for the ballast to settle, which came up in after the crash in Hangzhou a few years back. The costs of building such viaducts is reduced because of extensive standardization and mass production; on many lines the elevated portions comprise up to 80-90% of the total length. The Addis-Djibouti railway reflects this preference, albeit to nowhere as near as much of a degree.
 

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The website also has info about freight transport, and pictures of the different modes of freight transport:

BI-LEVEL-AUTO-CAR


BOX-CAR


CENTRAL-BEAM-CAR


FLAT-CAR


GONDOLA-CAR-COVERED


GONDOLA-CAR-UNCOVERED


HOPPER-CAR-COVERED


HOPPER-CAR-UNCOVERED


REFRIGERATOR-CAR


TANK-CAR
 

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^^Unfortunately still no online ticketing. It's such a shame that the station is way out in Lebu, otherwise I would suggest running an Addis-Adama commuter rail service with stops in Modjo and Debre Zeit. But with the stations so far out of town it doesn't seem particularly viable. In Adama it is not so bad, but the old station was much more central, same story in Modjo. Debre Zeit though is a real tragedy though -- the station there is well and truly in the middle of nowhere. The funny thing, in Dukem, where the line is pretty centrally located, there is no station! I wonder if it would be viable to convert the old lines in Adama and Modjo into passenger spurs. Addis would be tougher, but I can see a few ways, albeit winding, to get the line as far north as Gotera with a minimum of destruction; I'm sure others could find more creative routes. The station would obviously have to be very functional to keep down on costs, perhaps this is something the municipality could take on.

The Chinese approach is simply wrong; it depends of a sort of accessibility via mass transit and a rapidity of expansion that most places simply can't replicate. Even if the city did expand, the location would still make it difficult for most people to reach-- what good does sprawl do for you if you're in Kotebe, Shiromeda, or Gulele? It's still going to be a pain to reach. I'm still angry at the Ethiopian officials who oversaw this project for not insisting otherwise! I've been angry about this for nearly a decade!

Very nice, but I really hope they keep Legehar in use.

It's both happy and saddening, Ethiopia is speeding ahead the US in rail development.
Lebu is too far. This is a very Chinese idea, putting the train station on the outskirts of the city. It should still be where Le Gare is.
I do agree about the stations, however. There's no need to start anew when you can adapt. And the Chinese model of train stations seems a bit... off. Build a massive terminus (far larger than it needs to be) on the fringe of the city? We don't need that, stations should be reasonably sized and in the city center. Expand and rehabilitate Legehar and the other stations. They actually did something similar with the station in Shenyang:



Do that, just expand the platforms and build additions to the concourse building. It shouldn't be too hard, and in Addis you can also clear land to the west and make it a through station. A far cheaper and more appealing solution.
 
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