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Power disruptions hobble Ethiopia’s railway lines
Gedion G. Jeleta

Power disruptions hobble Ethiopia’s railway lines

48,000 hours of power outages recorded across Addis-Djibouti line

A new study by a local research firm has indicated that the Ethiopian railway operation has been suffering from recurrent power outages, exacerbated lack of sound legal system, least available maintenance facilities and most importantly the absence of funding. These have impacted the suitability and regular operations of the railway transportation between Addis Ababa and Djibouti, The Reporter has learnt.

The Center of Excellence International Consult (CEIC) found out that despite the anticipated positive contributions and cementing the Ethio-China relations, the railway system that required close to USD five billion in investments, has been faced with tremendous challenges.

Gedion G. Jalata, CEO of CEIC told The Reporter that the railway industry poses several problems for transport economists and regulators that are only partially shared with other transport modalities. The railway transport subsector in Ethiopia is regulated and supervised by different laws and institutions. Accordingly, the study showed that the legal framework for railway industry in both China and Ethiopia comprises of several treaties, acts, rules, regulations, guidelines, and agreements. However, significant barriers to railway development are found to be persistent in Ethiopia.

The major ones include: railway safety, environmental and technical standards, private sector participation, track access, cross-border traffic, the administration of railways and proficiencies of railway authorities are some of the issues. A study dubbed “Sino-Ethiopia evolving partnership along Addis Ababa-Djibouti, railway economic belt,” reveals that: “There are no international instruments regulating the railway sector in which Ethiopia is a part of is something that the study believes to be a result of having ineffective laws and institutions to regulate the sector.”

The study made has presented 573 incidents that have taken place up to October 31, 2019, including thefts of basic equipment and endangering train operation safety. The rail fastenings were stolen often, posing a serious risk of derailment and overturning accidents.

“This shortfall has undermined the potential of the rail systems to play a strong contributing role in economic development. In fact, rail transport's current market share in Ethiopia is below 30 percent of the total volume of freight transport,” the study claims.

Showcasing what took place back in April 2019, the finding recalled that a 53-wagon train heading from Addis Ababa to Djibouti was derailed in East Shewa Zone in the Oromia Regional State. The derailment has caused damages estimated between 200 million to 300 million birr, causing the subsequent suspension of railway transportation for several days. Furthermore, collision with livestock is also another distressing factor ailing the functionality of the railway line resulting delays and extra costs.

The entire railway transportation system has not been immune from a wide-area electric power blackout contributing to a series of disruption on its operations between the Addis-Djibouti rail networks.

The study Gedion and his team have conducted indicates that: “For instance, by the end of October 2019, the number of power cuts that occurred on train operation have reached to 6,742, and the overhead line reaching to 1,736.”

The frequent power cuts not only has affected the efficiency of the railway transport, but has also led to anomalous operations including rescue, slope stopping, regression, and a very serious impact on train operation safety. Some 60 percent of interruptions took close to three hours before the train’s returned to normal operations. But in some instances, three percent of the total events have caused more than a day long outages. The total interruption time was found out to be exceeding 48,000 hours since the start of railway operations across the corridor.

Another contributing factor includes the lack of special facilities that are required to carry-out rolling stock inspections. “Rolling stock is the most maintenance intensive part of the railway system and is the most vulnerable, if maintenance is neglected,” the study revealed. Due to a serious shortage in maintenance equipment configurations, spare parts, and vulnerable and consumable parts; for example, there are eight electric locomotives with serious faults, accounting for 22.8 of all the 35 units; two diesel locomotives, accounting to 33.3 percent of all the six units; and four passenger trains, accounting to 13.3 percent of all 30 units were found to be ill managed and ill-maintained. Hence, 502 freight trains that have been put into operation were found to have some vital faults, such as bearing oil seepage, air leakage in the braking system, risking the trains’ operational safety.

In addition, the study has outlined that keeping the maintenance and sustainability of the railway in order to let it operate at its full capacity has become a cumbersome challenge.

Gedion advises both countries to seek and identify ways for additional capital that can help finance and sustain the railway sector in Ethiopia. “For example, for the Ethio-Djibouti Railway (EDR), financing can be maximized through policies to address the funding gap and mitigate risks through transparent, robust and corporate governance.”

Since the launch of the railway operation between Addis Ababa and Djibouti; between 2018 and partially in 2019, close to USD 60 million has been generated from transporting 160,000 passengers and 1,248 tons of freight.