In the 1970s, China anchored the construction of the Tazara railway linking Tanzania and Zambia — a project that greatly boosted the two countries’ economies. A little more than 40 years later, a new episode of railway history was written, again with a Chinese helping hand, as East Africa’s first modern electrified standard gauge railway was inaugurated on Wednesday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The 750-kilometer railway, built by two Chinese companies and mainly financed by a Chinese bank, links Addis Ababa to the Red Sea port city of Djibouti. Designed for a speed of 120 kilometers per hour, it is expected to reduce travel time from seven days by road to about 10 hours, and provide landlocked Ethiopia with a faster access to the Djibouti port.
In a ceremony on Wednesday morning, Hailemariam Desalegn, prime minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, and his neighbor, Ismail Omar Guelleh, president of the Republic of Djibouti, cut a red ribbon officially commissioning the infrastructure that traverses both countries.
The railway was developed by two Chinese firms — China Railway Engineering Corp and China Civil Engineering Construction Corp. China Export and Import Bank loaned 70 percent of the capital.
“This train is a game-changer,” said Mekonnen Getachew, CEO of the Ethiopian Railways Corp. “Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. The connection to the ports (of Djibouti) will give a bounce, and our economy will grow faster.”
In his keynote speech, Desalegn said the $4 billion railway project clearly showed Africa’s desire and commitment to speed up the integration process.
“Ethiopia is once again in the continental map as a pioneer toward implementing modern infrastructure, courtesy of China,” Desalegn said.
The Djibouti president, Guelleh, hailed the project as a symbol of friendship and integration between the two neighboring countries. He said the project was conceived in 1897 but was only made possible more than 100 years later by China.
“China has stood by us and has been instrumental in building not only our regional infrastructure but the whole of Africa,” he said. “We see a prosperous future as a more integrated continent. This railway represents the new face of Africa, which is ready to take charge of its destiny.”
Also present were Togo’s President Faure Essozimna Gnassingbe; Xu Shaoshi, special envoy of President Xi Jinping and head of the National Development and Reform Commission; and Yuan Xingyong, vice-president of Export-Import Bank of China.
Xu hailed the railway as an achievement of cooperation and friendship, calling it a road map to the future, but said more effort should be made to develop the local labor force.
There will be a three-month test period of the line. To address a shortage of railway personnel, a massive training program is being led by China.
In Ethiopia, which hosts most of the line, about 2,000 local stewards, technicians, drivers and others are receiving training from China Railway No 2 Engineering Group, a major builder and operator of the railway.
More than 20,000 workers from Ethiopia and 5,000 from Djibouti were employed during the construction.
China is a leading builder and operator of railways worldwide. As of the end of 2015, the country had put 121,000 kilometers of rail lines into service, including 19,000 km of high-speed rail.
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