It’s a chilly Monday morning and Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, is already bustling with life as commuters jostle to get to work. A new bus service has just launched in the city. Residents will for the second time, in a span of eight months, witness another improvement in the city’s mass transport.
The modern Sheger City buses are already out plying the city routes. Sleek, and fitted with global positioning systems (GPS) as well as security cameras, they are meant to supplement Africa’s first light electric railway network, which has been in operation in the southern part of the city for seven months now. The buses’ success or failure is a story waiting to be told.
As my cab comes to a halt at the Meskel square, I notice an orderly queue disembarking from one of the morning trains that has just arrived from Kality, 17km from the CBD. I am here to take my first ride.
Clean and orderly is how one can describe the train station. Schoolchildren, commuters in suits and others in casual dress wait in turn to disembark before a call to board the train comes through the loud speaker.
Then off we go. It takes 15 minutes between the two stations, but it takes five minutes for commuters to fill up the cabins.
My attempt to have a word with the train driver proves unsuccessful, as I need authorisation to join him in the cabin. Fair enough. Later, I am guided into Belay Zeleke’s office. He is one of the project engineers of the $475 million Addis Ababa Light Railway Project.
‘Unique engineering feat’
A stout, serious man who barely cracks a smile, Belay is happy to share the success story of the light railway network, having worked on it in its various stages.
“This is a unique engineering feat. I wish we could replicate it beyond the 34 kilometres length it was designed as it has played a significant role in efficient transportation and technology transfer in our country,” Belay said.
In September last year, Ethiopia became the first sub-Saharan African country to have a light railway system, when it unveiled the Addis Ababa electrified light railway network. With this, the country joined the likes of Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia.
The Addis Ababa metro light rail system, capable of transporting 60,000 people per hour, was completed in January 2015 before it underwent stress tests on its performance, safety and right of way logistics.
According to Belay, the project’s benefits go beyond ease of transportation within the city to knowledge acquisition for the engineers and workers from their Chinese counterparts.
“This project as executed by China Railway Group is a first in sub-Saharan Africa. It means that most of the technology used here is foreign and we all had to learn. It is a proud feeling knowing that I am among the few Africans who got this knowledge here in Addis Ababa,” Belay said, adding that he had to spend more than a year in China as part of the learning process.
“This is my fifth year on the project and I am still learning. You have to learn the operations from the bottom to the technical level. We now have the build and operation know how. We have all had our share of knowledge transfer from our Chinese colleagues,” he says.