Nation Responds by Rail

Ethiopia is expanding its rail transport network. As a landlocked country, the nation could not have a better option. The underlying economic rationale of the rail transport rightly fits the country's needs. Bulk loads that would have incurred huge cost to transport by other modes of transportation could easily be transported by rail. It is this very benefit of the rail transport system that was witnessed in the latest transportation of emergency food supply from the port of Djibouti.

In a landlocked with rugged terrain country like ours, rail transport is almost a life line for multiple reasons. History has it that Emperor Menelik II, in partnership with the French company, Chemin de Fer, coordinating all resources of labour and pack animals, had founded the Djibouti-Addis Railway transport system well over 110 years ago. That line, which is now defunct, had been the main factor for the establishment of Dire Dawa, one of the major towns in the country, not to speak of the dozens of towns and the contribution they have made to the country along the railway line.

But the load carrying and the gauge dimension between the rail trucks had been out of date a long time ago, even from the shelves of the factories themselves in Europe. Obsolete spare parts were not only expensive but also hard to find anywhere.

It is a pity the news dispatch we got about the train carrying the emergency food load did not include detailed information about the modality itself. This is understandable because the main issue was the relief food itself. It now becomes necessary to stretch out the railway transport system and I will attempt to put some light on the subject, at least by way of posing some questions.

I must say that at a time when our country is more or less deluged with projects on which the country is spending its hard earned foreign exchange savings, the Addis-Djibouti rail line seems to be a design success. We have to applaud that even if it is still at trial stage. We hope that the venture was indeed worth the trial. I also hope that state-media reporters or independent journalists will be able to tell us more about the power, the speed and if there is any plan to have the tariff of the cost per unit weight per kilometre or cost of passenger transport, from point of origin to well known destinations.

I have been writing articles in this English weekly about both tramways and long distance heavy railway lines. The tramway has been operational but so far I am afraid, it has not proved to be the best mode of transportation so far. There is much to be desired with respect to speed and loading capacity, to match the prices paid by way of transport tariff, which is not uniform. All these disadvantages, especially seen in light of the amount of investment spent on the project, makes it very close to a waste of money and effort.

It would be impressive if Addis Abeba were the first capital city in Africa to have light rail transport as some would allude. But unfortunately, that is not so. Tramway buses or “street cars” as they are sometimes referred to, are in use in other capitals in Africa.

I want to focus on the distant railway projects in general and the Addis-Djibouti in particular. For the sake of easy reference, we can divide the system into three main components – the rail track, the engine or the locomotive and the wagon.

The most expensive of the three components happens to be the steel rail track with all the necessary tramps, bridges and other layout features. If my memory serves me right, modern times rail track loading capacity is no less than 30 tons per metre line. This is as opposed to our old junk which was only about 12 tons. You can imagine how much money should go into that kind of colossal project.

These days the  engine or locomotive part may be powered or driven by electricity, which makes the mode of transport less polluting. That is why countries engaged in the development of the green economy are better off by using electrically driven engines both for the short and long run.

The next issue is the wagon or the coach. It is this section that makes the modality of rail transport by far more beneficial than other forms of transport. This is because railways can carry any kind of live or dead weight and even liquid. With Ethiopia being an exporter of livestock to the Middle East, there can be no better way of transporting them than by train.

Even if the capital expenditure on the railway project is massive and expensive, its durability and speedy service can make good for its worth over a long sustainable service.

Before taking up the issue of costing, it should be noted that such resources like water, hydro power, land, massive labour and tax collected from all types of revenue are the collective property of all the citizens of that country. As such both the revenue expenditure and the natural resources are to be shared by all of us, if we believe in the principle of equitable sharing of a country’s costs and benefits.

This leads us to the rationing of calculating tariffs. As the railway project is very expensive but long lasting the discounting ration must be based on the equity share of all citizens. This means that the capital recovery period must be as long as the hardware, especially the steel rail could serve, which cannot be limited to one human life span.

That makes the service more affordable. The low cost of freight will be immediately felt and reflected in the prices of a chain of imported goods.

By the way the 110,000ql of grain taken to Adama are to serve only part of drought ridden areas scattered all over the six regional states. As long as the grain has to be transported to the affected areas, we should not forget the importance of the problem. But as mentioned earlier on, for all intents and purposes, bringing in the freight as soon as it is unloaded from the ships is the best arrangement that a land locked country like Ethiopia can possibly make.

By Girma Feyissa

Published on Dec 07,2015 [ Vol 16 ,No 814]



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