The long haul train to east
The Lebu train station is almost empty. It is just before 8 AM, departure time and the train headed to Djibouti via Dire Dawa is about to call passengers to board inside a historic train built by two Chinese companies, the China Railway Group Limited (CREC) and the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), about to call passengers to board inside a historic train, build the train headed to Djibouti via Dire Dawa.
But the luster this train had offered has had a lukewarm resulta year after its inauguration. Despite the millions spent to make the train transform the way people travel across the nation, it has doubled the travel time it used to take from four hours to up to 10 hours to accommodate the reality on the ground.
"When the train began, I was using it to travel from Addis Ababa to Dire Dawa to visit home, but it now takes more time than a public bus," Helen Kibrom, a 21 year old Addis Ababa University student complained, as she took a bread from reading a new book, The Shadow King, by MaazaMengiste.
"But I have now returned hoping it would improve. While I note it has not and is still very slow, its still a pleasant experience. My friends and I have made it a habit to take the train and find a way to kill the boredom by playing games on our phones."
The 752km long train costs 311 Birr per passenger and has changed since it began a year ago. Among the changes was to close its sleeping area and VIP section and make all sections fall under a regular standard and no longer sells snacks in it, with the exception of overpriced soft drinks and bottled water. It has even allowed passengers to carry Khat and chew it openly.
The first part of this construction, a 320-km of the project from Sebeta to Mieso was carried out by CREC, while the remaining 423-km from Mieso to Djibouti port section was built by CCECC – two mega Chinese owned companies, put in charge of mega projects across the nation, including roads, industrial parks and various other infrastructure projects.
The railway which commenced its commercial operations for both passenger and freight services in January of last yearprovides different kinds of freight services including the transportation of perishable goods, vehicles, cereals and fertilizers from the Djibouti port, all the way to Addis Ababa.
HenokBefekadu wanted to experience the rideas he heard much about it. But at the end of a long haul train ride that took him 10 hours, his only complaints is that it did not give him an onboard option to buy snacks. Nevertheless, he is content on what the train offered him.
"I am an Ethiopian diaspora from the United States. I returned after being away for more than three decades and I am now witness to how much Ethiopia has changed since I left such a long time ago,” Henok said adding, “This train has issues, in terms of speed and it lacks a place to purchase basic snacks but it is as good as any train, with an ample space and it is safe.”
That is music to the ears of the Chinese management who has been managing the train since its inception, with a promise to turn it over to local management within five years. They have attempted to accommodate the wishes of their passengers, while being mindful to safety under often-difficult circumstances.
This as the Ethiopia-Djibouti railway continues to be managed by - CREC and CCECC - for a period of six years undertaking railway operations and maintenance management activities.
According to the Ethiopia-Djibouti Standard Gauge Railway Share Company (EDR), the six-year contract was given to the two Chinese firms mainly due to the shortage of electrified railway operation and management experience in the two involved countries.
While the train has been operational, it has been having issues with children throwing rocks when it passes their villages, and regular electrical interruptions and rowdy passengers who fight with staff. Furthermore, the villagers are causing human made animal accidents and bargain for an immediate compensation.
A hostess on the train, who asked not be named told The Reporterthat there has been many and countless animals being thrown on the train tracks and armed villagers demanding to be paid.
"That has made it difficult to our travelers and its management, which eventually resultedin unforeseen delays to our customers and, more importantly, a potential safety hazard to all of us,” she said. “Other than that, its business as usual.
Shortage of electrified railway operation and management experience between the two involved countries, Ethiopia and Djibouti, also forced the Ethiopia-Djibouti railway to transfer all the maintenance, rail captaincy and control operations to experts drawn from the two Chinese companies that built the railway.
TilahunSarka, EDR Director-General, mentioningthe ongoing joint knowledge transfer efforts between EDR and the consortium of Chinese companies, told The Reporter that some 65 young train drivers from Ethiopia and Djibouti will soon travel to China to undertake theoretical and technical trainings.
The Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway project has been carried out with an investment outlayof USD 4 billion, with China's Exim Bank providing the loan.The new train was constructed with an ambition to modernize Ethiopia’s main import-export outlet by replacing the French-built old train which was abandoned almost 20 years ago. It is currently serving as an option to travelers going from Dire Dawa to the Red Sea nation, Djibouti.
In the neighborhood of Leghare, in Dire Dawa, the old train station is now a skeleton of its old self. At its entrance, is its first train,which is now a dumping ground of leftover food, used water bottles and newspapers. People associated with it often wonder of its proud legacy of the past.
For 67-year-oldAbader Ibrahim, it is painful to watch a historic part of his city turn into such a miserable stage, is saddening.
"To say you have worked in this train station was a pride. It was once like working for Ethiopian Airlines. We took pride in it and we served generations. Instead of looking at making it a museum, or a teaching ground or anything of that nature, it is disappearing before our eyes. Now this,” he said as her took a survey of the train station he once took care of, now decaying and neglected and asked, “What are we as a society, if we do not protect our past.”