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Ethiopia’s 100-Year-Old French-Built Railway Remains Vital For Residents

Ethiopia's 100-Year-Old French-Built Railway Remains Vital For Residents
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The train squeaked out of Dire Dawa station and vanished into the pre-dawn gloom, the lights that formerly lighted its decades-old carriages having long since failed.

Even with the recent advent of a modern, Chinese-built line, the old track remains important for trade and transit more than a century after the French erected a railroad in eastern Ethiopia.

Passengers and cargo pack into 1955 carriages twice a week for the 12-hour, 200-kilometer (125-mile) journey by diesel locomotive from Dire Dawa to Dewele, on the border of Djibouti.

They trade vegetables and khat, a mildly narcotic shrub, for food and other items there.

“We use it as transport,” said a young shopkeeper who declined to give her name, and said she exchanged goods for rice, sugar, pasta, spices, tomato sauce and oil.

The journey today spans the only operational section of the original 784-kilometer line that once connected Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, and Djibouti City on the Gulf of Aden.

Since 2016, a modern, electrified railway line built by China has connected the two capitals in times ranging from 12 to 18 hours.

However, in Dire Dawa, which was built by the French to house rail workers after the arrival of the “Franco-Ethiopian Railway,” the “Chinese train,” as it is known locally, does not suit everyone.

– ‘A blessing’ –

Stops along the Chinese line are outside city lines, and the ticket price is higher.

Crucially, it only makes three stops between Dire Dawa and Dewele, compared to eight along the French line.

“The (Chinese) train doesn’t stop at any station near us,” said the young shopkeeper.

“The railway was built along small towns and districts, and people settled near the stations,” said Mulugeta Kebede, 70, a driver on the old train for four decades.

“There are places that cars can’t go, and the only means of transportation is the train.”

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Ismail Khayad, deputy general manager of the ‘Dire Dawa-Dewele Railway’, said the new route did not service the region in the same way the French-built line did.

“People say the old railway is a blessing; the other one is… useless for us,” he said.

People have come to depend on the train as a bringer of food and other essentials, said Ayoub Asofa, 62, who mans the first stop after Dire Dawa, a shack about 10 kilometres from the city.

“This train is tied to the existence of the people,” he said.

“It will affect people’s daily lives if this train stops.”

– Slow decline –

The railway workers of Dire Dawa, a lovely town with tree-shaded streets, are filled with nostalgia and bitterness.

Signs in Amharic and French, a language still spoken by some of the elderly railway personnel, are a reminder of the station’s illustrious past.

Work on the line, ordered by Emperor Menelik, began in 1897 in modern-day Djibouti, then a French territory. By Christmas 1902, the line had reached Dire Dawa, 311 kilometers to the south, and Addis Abeba by the summer of 1917.

Dire Dawa, located at an economic crossroads, was once Ethiopia’s second-most populous city.

“It was the railroad that founded this city,” said Ismail.

But the railway went into decline in the 1970s with the rise of road transport and greater access to the sea via Eritrea, then part of Ethiopia.

Neglect, frequent derailments and a plodding pace saw the line fall into disuse. The Addis-Dire Dawa line was abandoned in the early 2000s, followed by the Djibouti leg.

Just 300 of its 2,500 employees remain, and the luxury sleeping cars that once ferried guests in style now lie rusting by the station.

The city, too, has deteriorated economically and socially over the years, said Ismail, who accused the Ethiopian government of having “abandoned” the railroad and its workers.

– Century-old trade –

To keep these historic trains running, the original rail workshops are kept operational, manned by a few dozen technicians.

Some of the machinery is as old as the railroad itself.

“Elwell&Seyrig, Plaine St-Denis, 1903”, reads a steel plate on a particularly vintage machine operated by veteran technician Belay Mulu, who switches it on to prove it still works.

Today he relies on a newer model, but all parts are repaired and repurposed on site because they don’t buy spares, the 53-year-old said.

“We don’t have much work now, because there’s not much traffic,” says Berhanou Bekele, 60, who heads the “Towed Equipment Repair” department at the station.

Beyond keeping trains on the tracks, these workshops are a crucial service for the region, their tradesmen turning their skills to repairing equipment at hospitals and factories.

“There is no workshop like it” within 500 kilometres, said Woubest Arefe, who relies on technicians at the railyard to build crucial parts for the detergent factory he manages.

“If it’s not here, either we have to bring it from China, which is very costly… otherwise we have to go to Addis Ababa,” he said, adding that would increase the overall cost.

The railway workers refuse to let their century-old know-how disappear.

“We have received it from our elders and we need to pass it to the next generation to preserve it,” said Ahmed Abdallah, a 53-year-old train driver. “People get old, but knowledge never gets old.”

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Written by How Africa News

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