Soon after unveiling the first urban light railway in sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopia accelerated the progress of its flagship project, a 700 km railway linking its capital Addis Ababa to the port of Djibouti. Due to become fully operational later this year, the link aims to provide landlocked Ethiopia with improved railroad access to the sea and is anticipated to have a dramatic impact on the country’s socio-economic development.

By Eva Grey |

In 2015, during the first ever visit of a US president to Ethiopia, Barack Obama described Africa as the continent with the greatest potential to become “the next center of global economic growth”.

Only two months later, Ethiopia unveiled the first phase of its $475m Addis Ababa Light Rail, the first electrified light rail transit system to open in sub-Saharan Africa.

The momentous launch however came at a time when Ethiopia is battling its worst drought in half a century. The drought, brought about by the El Niño phenomenon in June 2015, has caused widespread famine, wreaking havoc across the nation of 96 million, where the population still relies predominantly on agriculture. The deepening crisis prompted fears of “history repeating itself”, recalling the devastating famine that hit Ethiopia during the 1970s and 80s.

In response, the Ethiopian Government decided that the country’s first mega railway project, the Addis Ababa-Djibouti line, would begin its operations ahead of schedule to deliver essential food aid to the worst drought-stricken areas.

Successfully carrying its first freight on 20 November 2015 along the partially completed line to Merebe Mermersa, 112km south of Addis Ababa, the railway solidified its flagship status and strengthened hopes in its potential for future socio-economic development.

With its official opening expected in early 2016, the railway, it is hoped, will slash transit times for both freight and passengers, attract further foreign investment and ultimately catapult Ethiopia to a competitive force in the global marketplace.

Addis Ababa-Djibouti Line: an exciting development

Ethiopia has long suffered from a lack of railway infrastructure across its territory. Its first meter-gauge railway, built by the French in the 1890s, has over time deteriorated due to lack of maintenance, cutting Ethiopia’s direct access to the port of Djibouti. Today, Ethiopia still accounts for around 70% of the trade through the port, but all freight transportation relies on trucking.

Now, after a three-year long construction process, the nation’s biggest railway infrastructure project is on track to officially begin operating this year.

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