Rail transport in Ethiopia

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Current railroad routes in Ethiopia
red is 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 38 in) gauge

Rail transport in Ethiopia consists only of trial services from Djibouti to Dire Dawa on a reconstructed line since September 6, 2013.[1] The rail line continues from Dire Dawa to Addis Ababa, the capital, but is no longer operational. A new rail network is planned.


The Imperial Railway Company of Ethiopia (French: Compagnie Impériale des Chemins de fer d'Éthiopie[2] or Compagnie Impériale Éthiopienne[3]) was a firm founded in 1894 to build and operate a railway across eastern Ethiopia from the port of Djibouti to the capital of Addis Ababa. It was founded by Alfred Ilg and Léon Chefneux and headquartered in Paris, France.[2] The firm failed in 1906 when political discord halted construction, and it failed to obtain any new capital. The portion it had completed ran from Djibouti to just short of Harar,[4] the principal entrepôt for existing commerce in southern Ethiopia.[5] Its terminus evolved into the city of Dire Dawa, today a larger city than Harar itself.

Alfred Ilg and his family at the train station in Dire Dawa

Discussion of an Ethiopian railway was initiated by Alfred Ilg, an advisor to Emperor Menelek II. He had attempted to interest the previous emperor and other Ethiopian political figures in the construction of a railway to replace the six-week mule trek between the capital and the French port city, but had no success. When Menelek acceded to the throne in 1889, negotiations began anew and a decree was granted on February 11, 1893, to study the construction of rail line. Ilg, a Swiss citizen, and a number of French associates put together a firm and received a royal charter on March 9, 1894, enabling them to start work. Menelek resisted personally putting any funds into the venture, but did grant a 99-year lease to Ilg and his associates in return for a number of shares in the firm and half of all profits in excess of 3,000,000 francs. Furthermore, the firm was obliged to construct a telegraph line along the route.

It took until 1897 before the necessary permission from French authorities was received, by which time significant opposition in Ethiopia had materialized. The emperor himself was irate at the involvement of the French government, which had offered to fund the line,[2] and there were popular demonstrations against it. There was also opposition from the British legation in Addis Ababa, which feared a reduction in traffic to the port of Zeila in British Somaliland. (These fears proved well-founded: even half-finished, without links to either Harar or Addis Ababa, the railroad quickly eclipsed the port's former caravan-based trade.[5])

The firm also had difficulty selling its shares in Europe. Robert Le Roux campaigned for the line at municipal chambers of commerce around France,[6] but investor interest was restrained and Menelek was opposed to offers of direct involvement by the French government.[2] All in all, the initial stock offering only earned 8,738,000 francs of the 14 million projected, and an additional offering of 25.5 million francs of bonds yielded only 11,665,000 francs. This was far too little to complete the line. Despite the shortfall, construction began in October 1897 from Djibouti, a hitherto minor port that expanded primarily to serve the railway. A crew of Arab and Somali workers, overseen by Europeans, began to press inland with the line and its associated telegraph. Ethiopians were hired largely as security forces, to prevent the theft of materials on the line. This was also an important source of corruption for the primarily French administration, which fabricated incidents of sabotage and requested funds to buy off local chiefs that it claimed were responsible for it. Furthermore, the line was forced to avoid interfering with local communities and water sources, pushing it out into the desert. This meant that the railway company had to build aqueducts, an additional unplanned expense, to serve the line.

Even before reaching the Ethiopian border, it was clear the firm had serious financial problems. A group of British investors calling themselves the New Africa Company effectively took control of the firm over several years. They provided a new source of capital, and by 1901 had joined with the French investors to form the International Ethiopian Railway Trust and Construction Company - a holding firm which essentially controlled the railway and supplied it with further capital. The first commercial service began in July 1901, from Djibouti to Dire Dawa.

This mixture of French and British interests proved volatile, as each group of investors stood increasingly for both national and commercial interests. Both governments became interested in monopolizing Ethiopian trade and conspired to force the other into a minor position. The demands and threats of the two governments led Emperor Menelek in 1902 to forbid the expansion of the railway line to Harar. French negotiations to resume work were blocked by Menelek's growing suspicion of French motives, and the line could not earn enough to pay back the company's debts with such a limited service. The signature of the Entente Cordiale in 1904 reopened the possibility of continued joint Anglo-French investment and development, but there was enough resistance to such proposals on both sides that no progress was made. The firm went formally bankrupt in 1906.

Continued construction[edit]

Present station of the Djibouti-Ethiopia Railway in Dire Dawa.

Following the 1906 Tripartite Treaty between Italy, France, and Britain and the 1908 Klobukowski Treaty between France and Ethiopia, Menelek consented to further expansion of the railway, granting the new concession to his personal physician, a black Guadaloupean named Dr. Vitalien, on 30 January 1908.[7] The assets of the former company were then transferred to a new firm, the Franco-Ethiopian Railway (Compagnie du Chemin de Fer Franco-Éthiopien[3]), which received a new concession to finish the line to Addis Ababa. After a year of wrangling with the previous financiers and their governments, construction began anew. By 1915 the line reached Akaki, only 23 kilometers from the capital, and two years later came all the way to Addis Ababa itself.

Ethiopia's share in the railway was seized by the Italian government in the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, but was regained by Ethiopia after the World War II. Following the independence of Djibouti in 1977, the French share in the railway was transferred to the new nation.

Post-World War II[edit]

Workers for the Railway were pioneers in the Ethiopian labor movement. They organized one of the first labor unions in Ethiopia in 1947, the Railroad Workers Syndicate of Dire Dawa, for mutual welfare purposes.[8] Although its leadership co-operated with the Government, an attempted strike in 1949 was brutally suppressed by government troops; at the time, all strikes were seen by government officials as a form of insurrection.[9]

The railway company carried out surveys for extending its line 310 kilometers south from Adama to Dilla between 1960 and 1963. The government formed a Nazareth-Dilla Railway Development Corporation to support this new branch. Although the French government offered a loan to fund this new branch in 1965, and Yugoslav experts had studied and thought the project would be worthwhile, this project was never carried out.[10]

Following the 1977 independence of Djibouti, France transferred its ownership rights to the government of the new country. Around 1982, the railway was subsequently reorganized as the Ethio-Djibouti Railways (Compagnie du Chemin de Fer Djibouto-Éthiopien[3]).

In 2003 the European Commission prepared a grant of EUR 40 million for the rehabilitation of the Djibouti-Ethiopia Railway. Reflecting increases in fuel and steel prices, the commission increased this grant to EUR 50m in 2006. The Djiboutian Ministry of Equipment and Transport and the Ethiopian Ministry of Transportation and Communications chose the South African firm Comazar to administer the railway in March 2006. A 25-year concession was due to be signed in June 2007, but this failed to happen, and negotiations began with Kuwaiti company Fouad Alghanim and Sons Group.[11]

The new management was expected to raise the capacity of the railroad from its current average of 240,000 tons to 1.5 million tons.[12]

The governments of Djibouti and Ethiopia signed an agreement with the Italian consortium Consta 29 November 2006; work will begin early 2007 on sections of the line that deteriorated following the Ogaden War.[13] The gauge of the line is 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 38 in).

New network[edit]

In January 2010, it was announced that the Ethiopian government had signed a memorandum of understanding with four companies to build a new rail network. Among these firms was the China Communications Construction, China Railway Group, and an Indian and Russian company.[14] After all parties except the Chinese firms failed to take further action, the contract was awarded to the CRCG. In August, funding for the project was agreed to come from the Export and Import Bank of China. In September 2010, construction began on the project.

The network will be 5,000 km long, and radiate from Addis Ababa. It will be constructed in two phases, the first phase involving the construction of five lines.[15] The project will provide 300,000 jobs in construction and cost $336 million annually for five years. The system will handle 6 million tonnes of freight. The government of India has given US$300m for the Mekelle-Djibouti rail line.[16]

The gauge of the new railway will be 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in), which is standard gauge, as there is no point in increasing the size of the network fourfold on an obsolete gauge. There are also standard gauge proposed changes in adjacent countries, besides connecting with this gauge in northern Africa, the Middle East, Europe and China, among other areas.

Also included was a light rail system in Addis Ababa.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Djibouti: Dire Dawa - Djibouti Railways Resumes Service, AllAfrica.com, Sep 6th, 2013
  2. ^ a b c d "Ilg, Alfred" in the Encyclopædia Æthiopica, Vol. 3, pp. 120 ff. Accessed 17 Mar 2014.
  3. ^ a b c Crozet, Jean-Pierre. Françoise Faulkner-Trine, trans. The Franco-Ethiopian and Djibouto-Ethiopian Railway and "History". 2013. Accessed 12 Feb 2014.
  4. ^ "Abyssinia" in the Encyclopædia Britannica 11th ed.
  5. ^ a b "Zaila" in the Encyclopædia Britannica 11th ed. 1911.
  6. ^ "Le Roux, Robert Henri" in the Encyclopædia Æthiopica, Vol. 3, p. 551. Accessed 17 Mar 2014.
  7. ^ "Klobukowski Treaty" in the Encyclopædia Æthiopica, Vol. 3. Otto Harrassowitz, 2007. Accessed 17 March 2013.
  8. ^ "Local History in Ethiopia" (pdf) The Nordic Africa Institute website (accessed 1 March 2008)
  9. ^ Edmund J. Keller, Revolutionary Ethiopia (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), p. 147
  10. ^ "Dil Amba - Djibiet" (PDF). Local History in Ethiopia. The Nordic Africa Institute. 2005. Retrieved 2011-09-20. . The route of this proposed extension is shown on the map accompanying the article by Nathaniel T. Kenney, "Ethiopian Adventure", National Geographic Magazine, 127 (1965).
  11. ^ "No concession at Ethio-Djibouti Railway" Railway Gazette International September 2007
  12. ^ South African firm wins bid to administer Ethio-Djibouti railway Hiiran Online
  13. ^ "Ethio-Djibouti Railway rehabilitation accord signed" Walta Information Center
  14. ^ http://allafrica.com/stories/201001190639.html
  15. ^ http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article36391
  16. ^ "World rail market September 2012 - Railway Gazette". Railway Gazette International. Retrieved 24 September 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Tom C. Killion, "Railroad Workers and the Ethiopian Imperial State: The Politics of Workers' Organization on the Franco-Ethiopian Railroad, 1919-1959", The International Journal of African Historical Studies, 25 (1992), pp. 583–605.
  • Hugues Fontaine: Un Train en Afrique. African Train. Centre Français des Études Éthiopiennes / Shama Books. Édition bilingue français / anglais. Traduction : Yves-Marie Stranger. Postface : Jean-Christophe Belliard. Avec des photographies de Matthieu Germain Lambert et Pierre Javelot. Addis Abeba, 2012, ISBN 978–99944–867–1–7. English and French. [1]

External links[edit]