Ethiopia first in sub-Saharan Africa to launch light rail

Saturday September 26 2015

The light rail railway system was launched in

The light rail railway system was launched in Addis Ababa. PHOTO | ANADOLU AGENCY 

By Allan Olingo

Last week, Ethiopia became the first sub-Saharan African country to have a light railway system, when it unveiled the Addis Ababa electrified light railway network. The country now joins the likes of Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia.

The Addis Ababa metro light rail system, capable of transporting 60,000 people per hour, was completed in January and has been undergoing stress tests on its performance, safety and right of way logistics.

According to Getachew Betru, head of Ethiopia Railways Corporation (ERC), the 34-kilometre railway network will help ease the transport burden in the city.

On Sunday, September 20, the first 17-kilometre of the service that links the north of the capital to the south went into service, while the second link that will connect the east of the capital to the west will start services in October.

“The metro service has been on trial since February and we are confident about its operation; should there be any challenges, we are ready to address them in due course,” said Mr Betru.

The 39-station tram system is the first in sub-Saharan Africa, but South Africa and Nigeria are gearing up to launch the services in their major cities.

The project, which cost $475 million and was launched in 2012, was built by China’s Eryuan Engineering Group. China’s Export-Import (Exim) Bank provided a loan to cover 85 per cent of the project, with the remaining 15 per cent financed by the Ethiopian government.

The tram system will be powered by 160MW of electricity supplied mainly from overhead wires, from its own dedicated grid supported by four substations. Ethiopia built an independent power station to specifically serve the system.

There are currently about 13 light rail networks in Africa, with two under construction in Egypt and Morocco.

Prior to the Addis tram service, South Africa was the only country with a modern train service — its 80-kilometre high capacity Gautrain, which was completed in August 2011.

The project was built at a cost of $1.8 billion. However, the country is yet to get a metro system, mostly due to electricity challenges.

Nigeria was projected to have a metro system long before even Ethiopia broke ground for its own. Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, has been planning a light rail transit system since 2006. The World Bank provided the funding for the project but the construction has been delayed, missing its September 2014 deadline.

The project, being undertaken by China Civil Engineering Construction Company (CCECC), was to be operated under a public private partnership and was to be 27 kilometres long. As at the end of last year, only 16 kilometres had been completed. The first phase of the project is expected to start test runs in early 2016 and will cost $1.6 billion.

North Africa has had the light train systems for more than three decades. By 1992, Tunisia for example had five such systems. The nation’s capital, Tunis is served by a 33.5 kilometre electrified double-track line, while in Algeria, the country’s first metro development train project is nearing completion.

The project was started in 1988 but has faced funding challenges due to fluctuations in oil prices. Early this year, the country announced that it will expand its light railway project to three new systems in operation by the year 2020 at a cost of $1 billion.

Morocco also has the Casablanca light railway system that connects the city to the outskirts and covers 31 kilometre. The project was launched in 2012 and was built at a cost of $745 million. The project was funded by the Moroccan government, which contributed $135.7 million, France providing a loan of 307 million while the rest of it was provided through municipal budget and loans.

In 2013, the country signed another contract with France to build a 308-kilometre high-speed line that will include a 19-kilometre Rabat metro system at a cost of $2.1 billion.

Cairo also boasts of more than 80 kilometres of light railways with current ongoing construction of two more phases that are due to be complete in June 2016 and December 2019. Algeria has the Oran tramway system, which was inaugurated in May 2013.

The 18.7 kilometre tram line, whose construction started in 2008, handles 90,000 passengers per day and was built at a cost of $471.3 million.