The new 750-km line, which completely replaces a long-defunct French line built in the early 20th century, will reduce travel time between the two cities to 10 hours from the two to three days it currently takes to navigate the congested potholed roads crossed by 1,500 trucks a day.
The trains, which will transport freight only during an initial three-month testing period, will be manned by Chinese drivers and conductors for five years while local staff are trained to operate the line.
"This train is a game-changer,” Mekonnen Getachew, project manager of the Ethiopian Railways Corporation, told reporters. “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."
The new line will give Djibouti unprecedented access to Ethiopia’s market of 95 million people. For Ethiopia, the project is a key part of the government’s strategy to industrialise the country by luring foreign investment. The new $3.4bn railway, with its red, yellow and green trains evoking the Ethiopian flag, was 70% financed by China’s Exim Bank and built by China Railway Group and China Civil Engineering Construction.
The new line is the first step in a vast network of 5,000 kilometres of rail that Ethiopia wants to build by 2020, and it hopes it will be the starting point for an African Union plan to link the continent by rail from east to west.
But this ambitious project presents its own challenges. As planned, the railway would have to pass through war-torn countries such as the Central African Republic and South Sudan.
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