China steps in to reshape Africa with new railway

Passengers on board the first electric, transnational train in Africa, which has seen relatively little new railway construction in a century, during its inaugural journey from Djibouti to Addis Ababa on Jan 10.
Passengers on board the first electric, transnational train in Africa, which has seen relatively little new railway construction in a century, during its inaugural journey from Djibouti to Addis Ababa on Jan 10.PHOTO: NYTIMES
Chinese conductor Ding Jihua (at right) trains Ethiopian attendants at a station in Addis Ababa. The railway system will be turned over to local citizens in five years' time.
Chinese conductor Ding Jihua (at right) trains Ethiopian attendants at a station in Addis Ababa. The railway system will be turned over to local citizens in five years' time.PHOTO: XINHUA NEWS AGENCY

Chinese expertise and financial muscle behind Djibouti-Ethiopia line

DJIBOUTI • The 10.24am train out of Djibouti's capital drew some of the biggest names in the Horn of Africa last month.

Serenaded by a chorus of tribal singers, the crush of African leaders, European diplomats and pop icons climbed the stairs of the newly built train station and merrily jostled their way into the pristine, air-conditioned carriages making their inaugural run.

"It is indeed a historic moment, a pride for our nations and people," said Mr Hailemariam Desalegn, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, shortly before the train - the first electric, transnational railway in Africa - headed towards Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.

"This line will change the social and economic landscape of our two countries."

But, perhaps, the biggest star of the day was China, which designed the system, supplied the trains and imported hundreds of engineers for the six years it took to plan and build the 750km line. And the US$4 billion (S$5.7 billion) cost? Chinese banks provided nearly all the financing.

Having constructed one of the world's most extensive and modern rail networks at home, China is taking its prodigious resources and expertise global.

  • High-speed Chinese trains for Russian line

  • BEIJING • A new generation of high-speed trains capable of reaching speeds of 400kmh will be put into service for Russia's Moscow-Kazan line by 2020, reported the Chinese state media yesterday.

    The 770km line will run through seven Russian regions with a total population of more than 25 million, reported China Daily.

    The line will use regular high-speed trains rather than magnetic levitation trains which can travel faster than 400kmh.

    "To ensure the operation, China will test the 400kmh train in a selected part of the 709km Beijing-Shenyang high-speed railway line," said Mr Yang Guowei, a researcher at the Institute of Mechanics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

    Once they have been successfully developed for the joint Sino-Russia rail project, Mr Yang said the trains can then be introduced to the domestic market.

    The rail track is expected to be completed in 2019.

    It is expected to reduce the travelling time from Moscow to Kazan from 12 hours to just 31/2 hours.

    Mr Yang's work unit is responsible for designing the shape of the high-speed trains.

    The Moscow-Kazan line is reportedly the first segment of a transnational high-speed rail link to eventually connect Moscow and Beijing.

Chinese-built subway cars will soon appear in Chicago and Boston, Beijing is building a US$5 billion high-speed rail line in Indonesia and the Chinese government recently christened a new rail freight service between London and Beijing.

But few places are being reshaped by China's overseas juggernaut like Africa, a continent that has seen relatively little new railroad construction in a century.

CHINESE FORESIGHT

We approached the US, and it didn’t have the vision ... They have a vision of Africa only from the past, as a continent of war and famine. The Chinese have vision.

MR ABOUBAKER OMAR HADI, chairman
of the Djibouti Ports and Free Zones
Authority, on China’s interest in Africa.

GRATEFUL TOCHINA

For this,we have the Chinese to thank, because they shared with us their money and their technology. More than anything, we thank them for showing confidence in us. 

TECH SPECIALIST DAHA AHMED
OSMAN, on the new railway revamping
Djibouti, Ethiopia and eventually Africa.

Despite years of steady economic growth, sub-Sahara Africa remains hobbled by an infrastructure deficit, according to the Africa Development Bank, with only half of its roads paved and nearly 600 million people lacking access to electricity.

Chinese companies, many of them state-owned and grappling with an economic slowdown at home, have stepped into the breach, spending some US$50 billion a year on new ports, highways and airports across the continent, according to the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

China's enthusiasm for constructing railways, schools and stadiums in Africa stands in marked contrast to the role of the United States, which has largely shied away from financing infrastructure on the continent. When it comes to trade, China surpassed the US in 2009 to become Africa's biggest trading partner.

Mr Aboubaker Omar Hadi, chairman of the Djibouti Ports and Free Zones Authority, said he hoped the new railway linking his country to the Ethiopian capital would be just the first leg of a long-dreamed trans-African route, from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic.

"The train is already a game changer," he said, noting that it will cut a gruelling three- or four-day trip by truck to 12 hours.

He praised the Chinese for going all in after Western banks declined to help finance the nation's glaring infrastructure needs.

"We approached the US, and it didn't have the vision," he said. "They are not thinking ahead 30 years. They have a vision of Africa only from the past, as a continent of war and famine. The Chinese have vision."

Not everyone is comfortable with China's vision. Some worry about the leverage China wields and what happens when countries fall behind on loan payments.Others worry about the Djiboutian government's lack of transparency, its authoritarian impulses and a vexing legacy of official corruption.

Although workers from China did much of the technical and engineering work for Djibouti's first modern railway, thousands of Djiboutian and Ethiopian labourers were hired to lay tracks and dig tunnels.

The system will be operated by Chinese conductors for five years and then turned over to local citizens, many of them trained in China.

Mr Daha Ahmed Osman, 34, a tech specialist who works for the Djiboutian government, predicted that the new train service would transform Djibouti and Ethiopia, and eventually all of Africa.

"For this, we have the Chinese to thank, because they shared with us their money and their technology," he said. "More than anything, we thank them for showing confidence in us."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 09, 2017, with the headline 'China steps in to reshape Africa with new railway'. Print Edition | Subscribe