Ethio-Djibouti Railways

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Ethio-Djibouti Railways
Chemin de fer djibouto-éthiopien-en.png
Map of the Ethio-Djibouti Railway line
Other name(s) Franco-Ethiopian Railway
System Heavy rail
Status Abandoned
Termini Addis Ababa
Opened First commercial service in 1901, completed in 1917
Closed 2009-2014 (officially 2016)
Replaced by Addis Ababa–Djibouti Railway
Line length 784 km (487 mi)
Track gauge 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 38 in) metre gauge
Ethio-Djibouti Railways
Port of Djibouti
Chebele viaducts
Holhol viaduct
Ali Sabieh
International border
Harr mountains tunnel
El Bah
Dire Dawa (Harar)
Arba Bordode
Awash river gorge bridge
Malka Jilo
Debre Zeyit
Akaka Beseka
Addis Ababa

Ethio-Djibouti Railways (French: Chemin de Fer Djibouto-Éthiopien[1]), also known as the Ethio-Djibouti Railway, was both a railway company and a railway based in the Horn of Africa. Parts of the railway still exist in 2017.


The Ethio-Djibouti Railway was one of the colonial era meter gauge railways in Africa that was built between 1894-1917. For most of the 20th century, it was a rather well-known railway outside Africa because of its rugged terrain and interesting landscape, steep slopes, narrow curves and its bridges over canyon-like deep wadis. It was operated with both steam locomotives and later diesel locomotives and its other rolling stock mostly originated from the colonial era - and gave rise to some nostalgia and tourism.

Inside Africa, however, it served a clear economic purpose over decades easing the transport of goods between almost inaccessible Ethiopia and the ocean and clearly replaced camel caravans as the transport means of choice. Which camel caravan could arguably transport 700 tonnes of goods in one run at the speed of a quick horse? The trains also transported hundreds of travellers between the coast at Djibouti City and Ethiopia, daily. It was to some extent the connection of isolated and landlocked Ethiopia with the world around it.

The single track 781 km railway had a 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 38 in) gauge, most of it on Ethiopian territory, and about 100 km in Djibouti.[2] There were 187 bridges along the route, but only one tunnel at Gol du Harr, northeast of Dire Dawa.[3] The railway linked Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, with the Port of Djibouti. Along the railway, cities were founded like Dire Dawa, now one of most populous cities in Ethiopia.

The now-abandoned Railway[edit]

The railway has been abandoned entirely and silently—between 2008-2014—and has then been officially decommissioned at the end of 2016. The new Addis Ababa–Djibouti Railway, thought to replace the old railway and constructed between 2011-2017, an electrified standard gauge railway, began first emergency operations in 2015 and started official operations in October 2016.[4][5] This new standard gauge railway does not only run at most in parallel to the old metre gauge line, it also used part of its infrastructure. Some sections of the old railway line have even been built-over by the new railway, which effectively destroyed the old one.

Through trains did not run on the old railway after 2008.[6] Service was available between Dire Dawa and Djibouti until August 2010.[7] The service from Djibouti to Dire Dawa restarted in August 2013, but only for a short period of time, as the old railway line was soon to be built-over.[7][8]

Route of Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway compared to the Ethio-Djibouti Railway
The Addis Ababa La Gare train station.

Some parts of the infrastructure and of the rolling stock is still present but completely put out of service. Most of the rails and all of the railway infrastructure like bridges, the tunnel and also trains are still visible in satellite imagery (July 2017). For example, two full trains populate the railway station of the town of Adigale, as if they are leaving soon. Undestroyed railway sections for the eastern part of the railway are present between Dire Dawa and Adigale (almost 100 km) as well as between Ali Sabieh to almost Nagad railway station (almost 80 km). For the far western section west of Dire Dawa, the rails have been built-over more often since 2008. Some railway stations in the bigger cities still seem to exist. The Addis Ababa railway terminal, La Gare, is a century-old historical building. In 2008 a street project threatened to lead to its isolation or demolition but the building survived and was not demolished.[9] It is now a tourist destination.

Maintenance shops along the line were located in Dire Dawa, which grew up as the railway depot for nearby Harar. These maintenance shops survived the end of the old railway and made it into another company in 2010, Metals and Engineering Corporation (METEC), which then built more than 500 of the goods wagons for the new railway from 2011 to 2016. So the end of the old metre gauge railway was not the end for all the infrastructure around it.

The historic Railway[edit]


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

The Imperial Railway Company of Ethiopia (French: Compagnie Impériale des Chemins de fer d'Éthiopie[10] or Compagnie Impériale Éthiopienne[1]) 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.[10]

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,[10] 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.[11])

The firm also had difficulty selling its shares in Europe. Robert Le Roux campaigned for the line at municipal chambers of commerce around France,[12] but investor interest was restrained and Menelek was opposed to offers of direct involvement by the French government.[10] 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.[citation needed]


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

The 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.

The portion it had completed ran from Djibouti to just short of Harar,[13] the principal entrepôt for existing commerce in southern Ethiopia.[11] During the era of Emperor Menelik II the Somali clans Issa and Gadabursi were among the railway workers when the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway was under construction and greatly benefited from it.[14] Also Its terminus evolved into the city of Dire Dawa, today a larger city than Harar itself.

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.[15] The assets of the former company were then transferred to a new firm, the Franco-Ethiopian Railway (Compagnie du Chemin de Fer Franco-Éthiopien[1]), 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.

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.[16] 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.[17]

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.[18]

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. Around 1982, the railway was subsequently reorganized as the Ethio-Djibouti Railways (Compagnie du Chemin de Fer Djibouto-Éthiopien[1]).


Sign for Djibouti-Ethiopia Railway Line Rehabilitation Project (Dire Dawa station)

After World War II, the railway began a long period of decline. Traffic on the railway dropped in half from 1953 to 1957, as road transport began to compete for cargo.[19] The Ogaden War of 1977-1978 dealt a further blow to the railway, as Somali troops invaded Ethiopia and captured the railway as far as Dire Dawa.[20] Portions of the railway were blown up in the war, and railway operations were again cut in half.[21] After the war ended, the railway continued to decline from a lack of maintenance and attacks from rebels such as the Ogaden Liberation Front.[22]

The governments of Ethiopia and Djibouti pursued foreign aid to rehabilitate the railway. The European Commission prepared a grant of EUR 40 million in 2003 and raised it to EUR 50 million in 2006. On November 29, 2006, an agreement was signed with the Italian consortium Consta, and work began in 2007 on sections of the line that deteriorated following the Ogaden War.[23] In 2006, the South African firm Comazar was chosen to receive a 25-year concession.[24] However, this plan was not executed, and in early 2008, it was announced that the railway was in negotiations with the Kuwaiti company Fouad Alghanim and Sons Group.[25]

The EU-funded project stagnated, and only 5 km of tracks had been rehabilitated by 2009.[26] After that, the railway was in a partially-abandoned state.[27]

After the failure of the rehabilitation project, the two governments decided on a different approach to railway modernization. This decision more or less marked the end of the old railway and the birth of the new standard gauge railroad.

The railway company[edit]

Ethio-Djibouti Railways (French: Chemin de Fer Djibouto-Éthiopien[1]) was established in 1981 as the successor to the Franco-Ethiopian Railway, and it was jointly owned by the governments of Ethiopia and Djibouti.[28]

The company was headquartered in Addis Ababa; the ministers of the Djiboutian Ministry of Equipment and Transport and the Ethiopian Ministry of Transportation and Communications were the president and vice-president of the company.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d e Crozet, Jean-Pierre. "The Franco-Ethiopian and Djibouto-Ethiopian Railway". Françoise Faulkner-Trine, trans. Archived from the original on 10 December 2013.  and "History". 2013. Archived from the original on 16 June 2013. Retrieved 12 February 2014. 
  2. ^ "The World Factbook". CIA. 
  3. ^ Belda, Pascal (2006). Ebizguide Ethiopia. MTH Multimedia S.L. pp. 180–181. ISBN 9788460796671. CDE has over 187 steel bridges with spans varying from 4 to 141 meters. Gol du Harr, located at North-East of Dire Dawa, at Km 181, is the only tunnel along the rail track. 
  4. ^ "Ethiopia-Djibouti electric railway line opens". BBC News. 5 October 2016. Retrieved 3 November 2016. 
  5. ^ "Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway project is 98% complete". Railway Pro. August 4, 2016. 
  6. ^ Vaughan, Jenny (March 10, 2013). "China's Latest Ethiopian Railway Project Shows Their Growing Global Influence". Agence France Presse. While the economic benefits of the train -- which will be used for both freight and passenger transport, replacing slow and costly truck transport -- is widely recognised, some lament the seemingly inevitable death of the historic French-built diesel-powered train, which went out of service in 2008 after years of neglect. 
  7. ^ a b April 27, 2015. "Train travel in Ethiopia & Djibouti". The Man in Seat 61. Archived from the original on April 27, 2015. Most of the guide books have the info’ on the train completely wrong, most of them still saying the train departs Addis Ababa but this has not happened for over two years. They also say the train does not operate at night because of the chances of attacks, but this is also wrong as the train I caught on Sunday 20-12-2009 departed at 10.30am (over a day late) and arrived Djibouti at 05.30am the next. I spent over 18 hours in the cab!!!! 
  8. ^ "Djibouti: Dire Dawa - Djibouti Railways Resumes Service". 6 September 2013. 
  9. ^ "Historic Addis Ababa railway station under threat". 28 May 2008. Retrieved 11 November 2013. 
  10. ^ a b c d "Ilg, Alfred". Encyclopædia Æthiopica. Vol. 3. pp. 120 ff. Retrieved 17 March 2014 – via Google Books. 
  11. ^ a b "Wikisource-logo.svg Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Zaila". Encyclopædia Britannica. 28 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 950. 
  12. ^ "Le Roux, Robert Henri". Encyclopædia Æthiopica. Vol. 3. p. 551. Retrieved 17 March 2014 – via Google Books. 
  13. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Abyssinia: (26) In 1899 the rebellion ...". Encyclopædia Britannica. 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 94–95. 
  14. ^ Negatu, Workneh; Research, Addis Ababa University Institute of Development; Center, University of Wisconsin--Madison Land Tenure; Foundation, Ford (2004-01-01). Proceedings of the Workshop on Some Aspects of Rural Land Tenure in Ethiopia: Access, Use, and Transfer. IDR/AAU. p. 43. 
  15. ^ Harrassowitz, Otto (2007). "Klobukowski Treaty". Encyclopædia Æthiopica. Vol. 3. Retrieved 17 March 2013 – via Google Books. 
  16. ^ "Local History in Ethiopia" (PDF). The Nordic Africa Institute. Archived from the original (PDF) on 28 May 2008. Retrieved 1 March 2008. 
  17. ^ Keller, Edmund J. (1988). Revolutionary Ethiopia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p. 147. 
  18. ^ "Dil Amba - Djibiet" (pdf). Local History in Ethiopia. The Nordic Africa Institute. 2005. Retrieved 20 September 2011. . The route of this proposed extension is shown on the map accompanying the article: Kenney, Nathaniel T. (1965). "Ethiopian Adventure". National Geographic Magazine (127). 
  19. ^ Bergqvist, Rickard (2016). Dry Ports – A Global Perspective. Routledge. p. 93. ISBN 9781317147671. 
  20. ^ Cooper, Tom (2014). Wings over Ogaden: The Ethiopian-Somali war, 1978-1979. Helion. p. 56. ISBN 9781909982383. 
  21. ^ Middle East Economic Digest. 22: 11. 1978. The railway line was cut frequently during the Ogaden war, but has been operating at 50 per cent capacity since July.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  22. ^ "Addis Ababa–Djibouti Railway". Historical Dictionary of Ethiopia. Scarecrow Press. p. 23. ISBN 9780810874572. 
  23. ^ "Ethio-Djibouti Railway rehabilitation accord signed". Walta Information Center. Archived from the original on 2007-10-07. 
  24. ^ "South African firm wins bid to administer Ethio-Djibouti railway". Hiiran Online. 
  25. ^ "No concession at Ethio-Djibouti Railway". Railway Gazette International. September 2007. 
  26. ^ Foch, Arthur (March 2011). "The paradox of the Djibouti-Ethiopia railway concession failure" (PDF). Private Sector & Development (9): 18. For example, in 2009 only five kilometres of track had been rehabilitated. ... The two States gradually abandoned the CDE, which by 2011 had ceased all activities. 
  27. ^ Vaughan, Jenny (10 March 2013). "China's Latest Ethiopian Railway Project Shows Their Growing Global Influence". Agence France Presse. The train station -- known locally as "la gare" -- and the workshops still stand, unused for years. Employees still arrive at work diligently just after dawn every day, only to sit among the abandoned train cars and imported French machinery, seemingly frozen in time. They still receive a monthly stipend from the company, which is now run by the Ethiopian government. They hold out hope that the diesel train will be revived one day, but the European Commission-funded project to rehabilitate the old railway at a cost of $55 million has stalled due to a contractual dispute. 
  28. ^ Belda, Pascal (2006). Ebizguide Ethiopia. MTH Multimedia S.L. p. 180. ISBN 9788460796671. Soon after the independence of Djibouti, the government of Ethiopia and Djibouti signed a new treaty on March 1981, for 50 years on equal parity ownership under "chemin de Fer Djibouto-Ethiopien" name. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Brisse, André (1901). "Djibouti et le chemin de fer du Harar". Annales de géographie (fr) (in French). 10 – via  Free to read
  • Fontaine, Hugues (2012). Un Train en Afrique. African Train (in English and French). traduction by Yves-Marie Stranger; postface by Jean-Christophe Belliard; photographers Matthieu Germain Lambert and Pierre Javelot (bilingue français / anglais ed.). Addis Abeba: Centre Français des Études Éthiopiennes / Shama Books. ISBN 978-99944-867-1-7. 
  • Killion, Tom C. (1992). "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: 583–605. 
  • Robinson, Neil (2009). World Rail Atlas and Historical Summary. Volume 7: North, East and Central Africa. Barnsley, UK: World Rail Atlas Ltd. ISBN 978-954-92184-3-5. 

External links[edit]