Light Railway: Disastrous Undertaking

Addis Abeba’s Light Railway has been pitched as one of the ways to address the city’s transportation problems. Currently, it is causing more problems than addressing them, writes Ambessaw Assegued (

The tour operator promises that the visit to Atkilt Tera, the produce market in Addis Abeba, will be like no other. The client, an American architect from San Francisco, is easily sold and enthusiastically arrives at the market with his camera and notebook at the ready.

Soon he finds himself a spectator of a scene peculiarly Ethiopian in style, if not in distinction. Other cities in Asia, Africa and South America have marketplaces that teem with merchants, vendors, beggars and customers.

But the scene in Piassa is different. The marketplace reverberates at the very heart of the city, at its very core. Not much has changed since this commerce centre was established by Menilik and then rebuilt by the Italians during the years of occupation.

After walking the stretch between Atkilt Tera and Autobus Tera, the central bus station in Merkato, the visitor is no longer sanguine.

“Even if they had tried to disrupt the city by planning and acted with intentions, they would not have been able to achieve the level of chaos that has been generated by this project,” observes the American city planner, referring to the light railway system that runs through the marketplace.

There is no better example that displays the squalor and scale of urban problems that faces Addis Abeba than the stretch between Atkilt TeraandAutobus Tera.

On full display are the collapsed infrastructure of the city, a glaring account of failures of a city administration. Chief among them is the much-touted, debt-laden, ill-conceived, ill-designed and ostentatiously built light-rail system that symbolises the essence of all that is wrong with the management of the city.

Between Atkilt Tera and Autobus Tera, the light railway toes two cars intermittently east and west. Underneath the monstrous columns and massive rail tracks, crowds of pedestrians, taxis, buses and occasional donkeys push and shove to carve out paths on streets and sidewalks overwhelmed by the railway structure.

Indeed, it boggles the mind how the municipal authorities have allowed the city centre to descend into this level of deterioration. But this neglect is not just between Piassa and Merkato where urban management fails completely, it is found all across the entire city.

There are few sections of the city where the squalor lifts; or where the cracked and uneven surfaces disappear; or any stretch of street, even in the newest and sleekest parts of Addis Abeba, in Bole, where the roads and sidewalks have not been upturned; nor any neighbourhood immune from piled trash and refuse.

The light railway system, and there is nothing light about it, is the epitome of this misguided city planning. The system runs on the surface some distances; descends into dug up trenches in some sections; disappears into a tunnel for a short run; and rises up in the air on huge columns, pillars and ballasts. Along its inexplicable and devilish paths, it has disfigured the cityscape, ruined the functions and beauties of venerable buildings, and does little to alleviate the transportation problems of the city.

Each day tens of thousands of commuters line up under its shadows waiting for taxis and buses.

Why would people use a rail system that has its ticket offices located blocks away from the entrances, follows erratic schedules, rolls around with two cars, presents entrances up a long flight of stairs, operates elevators that seldom work and arrive at the stations jammed to over capacity by the underserved citizens?

The Qality ticket office, for instance, is almost too hard to find to be of any use to new travellers. It is located blocks away from the station and tucked in an obscure neighbourhood.

Most train stations are approachable only by crossing directly over busy roads that bear no crossing signs; the arrivals and departures of the trains at the stations are unscheduled and random; there are concrete banks and walls along the railway line that cause major and regular flooding in some sections during the rainy seasons; and the narrow lanes between the tracks along the rail alignment create constant congestion for vehicular traffic.

There are reports that the light railway system can only run two connecting cars at a time – if true, a major design flow. There are also the non-functioning escalators put in place for good measure.

The fact that the placement of huge infrastructure in the middle of the city requires civic planning, sustainability, community involvement and lessons learned from those who have accomplished it successfully, particularly the Europeans, is evidently unobserved.

It is doubtful that the city planners and policymakers understand the magnitude of the encumbrance the nation faces with a massive foreign debt incurred to finance an unserviceable project.

There is no simple remedy for the disaster created by the light railway system. It should be redesigned at the very least. In its present configuration, it is a dysfunctional monstrosity that needs to be removed, for it has ruined the cityscape while contributing nearly nothing toward solving the problem of transportation in the city.

It is not the existence of street vendors and beggars on pavements and sidewalks that overwhelms the American visitor. It is the ill-devised rail system, the unmaintained roads and failed infrastructure that disgruntles him.

By Ambessaw Assegued (

Published on Oct 13,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 963]



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