As work to re-open the route between the Eritrean capital Asmara and the port of Massawa continues, studies for a new line across the border from Kassala in Sudan are now under way. Peter Badcock reports

WITH relations between Eritrea and Sudan now on a better footing, consultants have begun work on preliminary studies of a new line to Agordat in western Eritrea from Kassala in eastern Sudan. Kassala is an important agricultural centre with marble quarries nearby. It is hoped that a through route from Kassala to Massawa would attract containers that would otherwise make the longer journey to Port Sudan, 540 km north of Kassala by rail.

Between Kassala and the former railhead of Biscia in western Eritrea, the new line would run via Tessenei on the River Gash over a route proposed for previous projects. An existing alignment via Agordat would be used between Biscia and Keren, and from here two alternatives are under consideration. The existing steeply-graded alignment through Asmara could be relaid, with some curves eased and tunnel clearances enlarged, or a new route built with maximum gradients of 1·5%. This would run to the north of the capital, requiring two major tunnels to traverse ridges between rift valleys.

As the new link would be to the 1067mm gauge of the Sudan Railways Corp, a third rail would have to be laid on Eritrea Railway's 950mm Asmara - Massawa route which is 117 km long. The first 69 km inland from Massawa as far as Ghinda have been reopened to traffic, with trains operated daily between Ghinda and Damas (24 km) to serve otherwise isolated communities. Charter services are occasionally operated as far as Massawa.

Reconstruction progresses

It is hoped to reopen the 47 km Ghinda - Asmara section in 2002, and tracklaying has reached the site of a railway bridge over a road above Embatkala, 16 km from Ghinda. Ballasting has been completed and half this section has been tamped. As well as the replacement of the bridge girders and deck to allow the passage of high lorries, requiring a moveable span or a road diversion, reopening the next 7 km to Nefasit will involve work on four culverts. Deforestation has led to these culverts being blocked by rocks carried down by flash floods, with the retained water then washing out embankments.

Survey and clearance work on the Nefasit - Asmara section began at the very start of Eritrea's railway recovery programme, instituted soon after the country attained independence in 1993. Largely through recourse to local expertise, this programme has cost a total of US$3·5m so far against consultants' estimates of between $200m and $400m.

Over the 24 km between Nefasit and Asmara, the railway climbs 720m on gradients of up to 3·5%, traversing 70m radius curves, several viaducts and 20 of the 30 tunnels between Asmara and Massawa, the longest being 372m.

With fewer troops now required for border duties, the army is providing manpower to build retaining walls, tackle drainage and assist with tracklaying. This is expected to begin shortly. Enough rail and almost the required number of steel sleepers have been recovered from now abandoned fortifications where they had been used as reinforcement, but fishplates, nuts and bolts and other small track components are lacking. Once tracklaying is complete, the route will be inspected using a visiting Italian track recording vehicle.

The increase in traffic that is expected once the Asmara - Massawa section is fully reopened will require more formal methods of train control. It is anticipated that movements will be regulated by VHF radio, requiring the procurement of handsets for traincrew as well as transmitter and repeater stations. The fitting of continuous brakes to the existing traction and rolling stock fleet would allow train speeds to be raised on the journey from Asmara to Massawa, thereby improving the railway's competitive position against road. New workshops have been established at Ghinda with the assistance of three engineers who had previously worked at Djibouti-Ethiopian Railway's Diré Daoua facility, and the extensive workshops at Asmara are being re-activated.

Eritrea's Railway's active rolling stock fleet includes two Krupp 560hp diesel-hydraulic locomotives built in 1957, as well as three Mallet steam locomotives built in Italy in the 1930s which haul charter trains composed of up to five bogie coaches built in 1912. Two Fiat diesel railcars dating from 1935 are also serviceable, although with age their reliability has suffered. The active wagon fleet dates from the 1960s, but some new well wagons may be acquired to carry containers once the Asmara - Massawa line is open throughout.

  • CAPTION: An Ansaldo-built Mallet arrives at Ghinda with a passenger train from Damas
  • CAPTION: Fiat railbus emerging from the Dongollo tunnel
  • CAPTION: A Krupp diesel-hydraulic loco shunts boxcars at Mai Atal
  • CAPTION: Above: This engineering trolley is half a Fiat railbus chassis equipped with a lorry body