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Eritrea using local resources to revitalise its railway

01 Jun 2006

Like the train's steep and winding climb up the escarpment from sea level to 2394m, progress on rehabilitation of the Eritrean Railway is slow but steady

Amanuel Ghebreselassie is Manager of the Eritrean Railway, and with Jennie Street is currently writing a history of ER, which is to be published by Rail Romances, UK

REINSTATEMENT of the 950mm gauge railway between the Red Sea port of Massawa, and Asmara, the highest capital city in Africa, was completed in 2003. The rebuilding was carried out with Eritrea's own resources, after President Isaias Afwerki gave a commitment to reconstruction and made finance available. Apart from a hiatus created by the three-year border war with Ethiopia in the late 1990s, this funding continues.

Most of the materials used for rebuilding this 117 km section have been salvaged and repaired, with track which had been used for trenches retrieved and straightened, and rail fastenings restored. Pointwork was repaired with the skill of Tesfai Asghedom, an octogenarian who is still working on the railway full-time.

Quantities of fishplates, bolts and clips have been bought from Italy. Although tonnes of coal from Haile Selassie's day still remained at liberation in 1991, this has since been used up and more was purchased from South Africa.

Since 2000 a steady stream of railway tourist groups has been visiting Eritrea. The trip down the escarpment, with sheer drops below the trains, leaves many a visitor's heart in his mouth! But even with the magnificent views, 1929 Breda and 1939 Mallet steam locomotives, and 1938 Fiat diesel railcars, railway tourism cannot be the mainstay of the railway, although the foreign currency it generates is useful.

A regular main line service is not yet possible because the elderly locomotives are unreliable. Plans are afoot to purchase four or five diesel locomotives and a similar number of diesel railcars from Europe. In addition, 1200hp to 1500hp engines and gearboxes for the two Krupp diesel hydraulic locomotives are being bought from Caterpillar, and Iveco engines are being sought from Fiat for the old littorina railcars. This will enable the running of regular services and the carriage of freight.

Freight

At present all freight traffic moves by road. This is a far cry from the 1950s and 1960s when all road transport was controlled by the railway, and it will be a long time before the record of 208000 tonnes carried in 1956 can be achieved.

Salt is an important product for the railway's hinterland, including Sudan, and sesame, live animals and peanuts are important exports which the railway can facilitate.

During the rainy season, a service runs from Ghinda for farmers to reach remote fields around Damas. This has proved very valuable to the local economy, and the service is well-used because train journeys are cheap compared with the very high cost of transporting farm produce by camel.

Tests have confirmed that 40ftcontainers can be carried through the 30 tunnels up the escarpment, and flatbed wagons are currently being repaired and strengthened in the workshops in preparation for container traffic, under the supervision of the head of the metal workshop, Beyene Ghebrai.

Beyene was an unexpected asset to Eritrean Railway. In 1998 he was one of thousands of Eritreans deported from Ethiopia during the border war, despite 30 years service on the Djibouti-Ethiopian Railway where he had risen to head of the Dire Dawa branch. He quickly found work in the Asmara workshops, where his skills are invaluable.

In the late 1990s a commuter service ran in Massawa, hauled by a Drewry diesel loco. This was forced to cease when the original engine became unreliable, but it is about to recommence following the installation of an engine taken from a Russian-built Ural lorry, one of many damaged or captured from the Ethiopians during the liberation struggle. Two Ural lorries converted for rail use already work the line as ballast transporters and inspection vehicles.

On to Sudan

Since the first 117 km was revived, further work has been carried out to reconstruct the section of line continuing west beyond Asmara towards the Sudanese border.

This line ran to Keren, site of terrible battles between the British and Italians in 1941, and then on to Agordat. For a short period in the 1930s the line also ran 35 km further, to Biscia, but the British lifted the track in 1941. From there, the gap of 109 km to the border town of Tessenei was never laid with track, although the earthworks, bridges and some railway buildings were constructed. In 1941 British forces built a 26 km supply line from Kassala in eastern Sudan to Tessenei, which was used for some years after World War II.

Eritrean Railway is now proposing to extend its line all the way through from Asmara to Sudan, and has already completed grading the first 73 km.

From Zazzega, the second station west of Asmara, the line has been rebuilt and graded as far as Halib Mentel, 12 km east of Keren. This line runs through mountainous terrain, perfect bandit country, which from the 1940s to the 1970s was the site of many ambushes and sabotage attempts on the railway by groups opposed to whichever regime was in control at the time.

All salvageable rails have been collected ready for relaying, and ballast is stockpiled in various locations. Negotiations are under way to divert the line around buildings and roads which have been built over the original trackbed between Asmara and Zazzega.

Every railway station needs to be restored, and in some cases it needs to be reclaimed from use by another organisation; multiple occupation by families in Massawa station, Transhorn Transport Company in Asmara, the city administration in Keren, and the military in Agordat. Only at Ghinda is the railway office used for its original purpose.

The commitment of the Eritrean government to reconstruct from its own resources means that the Eritrean Railway is well on the way to completion of all 450 km from Massawa to Tessenei. Don't expect it to happen quickly, but at least it is one of the few railways in the world being reconstructed for a national and commercial function.

  • Picture caption: Re-ballasting the causeway at Massawa in January 2006
  • Picture caption: Tests have demonstrated the ability of the railway to carry container traffic and outsized loads
  • Picture caption: New Caterpillar engines are being procured for Eritrean Railway's two Krupp diesel-hydraulic locomotives, and Iveco engines for the Fiat littorina railcars Photo: Hans Hufnagel
  • Picture caption: Flatbed wagons are being repaired and strengthened to carry containers under the supervision of workshop head Beyene Ghebrai. The Drewry diesel locomotive is to be re-powered using an engine from a Ural lorry