ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Taking advantage of its expanding hydropower and other renewable energy capacity, Ethiopia is building an extensive system of electric railways to ease urban traffic congestion and reduce carbon emissions and pollution, officials say.
The country is constructing nearly 2,400 km (1,500 miles) of national electric railways, plus 34 km (21 miles) of light rail in Addis Ababa as part of a five-year “Growth and Transformation” effort that ends in 2015.
Ethiopia has been slow to embrace railway transport in recent decades. The diesel-powered Addis Ababa-Djibouti City Railway, built by the French in the first two decades of the last century, is now barely functional.
But the government now plans to rejuvenate moribund railway infrastructure to reduce road traffic as well as air and noise pollution that afflict the capital and, increasingly, major regional cities as well.
Work on the Addis Ababa Light Rail Project has been started by a Chinese firm, China Rail Engineering Corporation, which is also building the first phase of the new Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway, which will have a total length of 327 km (204 miles). The second section of the railway, from Mieso to Dawanle at the Djibouti border, is currently under construction by China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation.
The two projects combined are expected to cost close to $2.8 billion, a sum that will be covered by the Ethiopian government and a loan from the Export-Import Bank of China.
A Turkish firm, Yapi Merkezi, has been awarded a $1.7 billion contract for a railway from the eastern town of Awash to the northern city of Woldiya, with a total length of 389 km (243 miles). The firm is preparing to begin construction.
CAN’T COME SOON ENOUGH
For Nardos Belete, a worker who lives in a northern district of Addis Ababa, where the Addis Ababa rail project construction first started, the railway cannot come soon enough.
“I have to wake up at six in the morning, prepare my two girls for school as well as feed them breakfast, and wait in a bus line to go to work” said the 40-year-old mother.
Belete recalls that when she was growing up in Addis, the air was much cleaner than it currently is. She hopes the new railway will help lower the current levels of air pollution.
Shewangizaw Kifle, an official at the state-owned Ethiopian Railway Corporation (ERC), emphasises the environmental benefits of railways as well as their energy efficiency.
According to Kifle, the railways will hugely reduce the carbon intensity of bulk transport compared to trucks, and should greatly reduce local air pollution as well as road congestion and noise.
The new tracks will be electrified, with 90 percent of the power expected to come from hydroelectric means and the rest to be covered through other renewable sources such as wind, solar and geothermal energy.
The government expects freight transport to increase by more than 13 percent annually from 2011 to 2030, despite high fuel prices. Over the same period, demand for passenger transport is projected to increase by about 9 percent annually
The government says that without the new railways, overall carbon dioxide emissions from transport would grow by 800 percent to 40 tonnes a year by 2030. But according to Kifle, the country’s new rail capacity will reduce road traffic enough to cut expected annual greenhouse gas emissions from transport to just under 9 tonnes by 2030.
The government’s investment in the rail sector is part of Ethiopia’s Climate Resilient Green Economy Strategy (CRGE), launched in 2011, by which the government plans to achieve middle-income status for Ethiopia by 2025 while building a climate-resilient economy.
Kifle said that the government chose to use electricity rather than coal or diesel for the new railways because of its reliability, durability and the relatively small investment costs over the long term.
The business community is eager to see the benefits of the new transport infrastructure.
According to a 2009 study by the Addis Ababa Chamber of Commerce and Sectoral Association, the competitiveness of Ethiopia’s exports is of critical importance to the country’s economy but that competitiveness is vulnerable to high transport costs, while public passenger transport is currently unable to meet the increasing demand. For both these reasons, investments in the rail sector are needed, the study said.
Nevertheless, Elias Kassa, head of the SWETH railway consultancy firm in Stockholm, Sweden, sounded a note of caution about overestimating the benefits of rail technology.
“Rail technology may be a cleaner and faster transportation mode for big cities like Addis Ababa,” the Ethiopian-born Kassa said, “but in order to succeed it has to be integrated with other transportation modes such as electric buses, normal buses and taxis.”
Kassa also warned that although railways help avoid traffic congestion and provide a high-quality means of transportation, the experience of European countries and China show that they are not necessarily cheaper, unless there is a huge subsidy from the government.
“It’s clear rail transportation provides improved comfort, which necessitates that you pay a higher fee,” said Kassa. He added that the energy and fuel saved transporting freight by rail, as well as time saved with passenger trains, may compensate significantly for high ticket prices.
E.G. Woldegebriel is a journalist based in Addis Ababa with an interest in environmental issues.