China and Ethiopia: The Addis Light Train Stuck in Slow Motion

This article is the fifth in a series on railway and industrial park developments by Chinese players in Ethiopia, which began with our analysis of the Addis Ababa Light Rail (AALRT) and the Addis-Djibouti railway in The Diplomat in 2018. Part 3 rI avoided the same two projects in 2019; Part 4 described our visit to the industrial park of Mekelle in 2020. This time, we revisited the AALRT, got on board and looked at the current state of infrastructure and service in the Ethiopian capital.

The Addis Ababa Light Rail (AALRT), the first intra-city tram project in sub-Saharan Africa, was hailed as an exemplary infrastructure development in 2015 and a groundbreaking step for Africa-China relations. Today, it faces even more challenges than we noticed in 2018, when we first took a trip.

Between our visits, numerous crises hit one of Africa’s most progressively developing economies, including the COVID-19 pandemic and various armed conflicts, the most devastating of which was the two-year war in Tigray. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his government have been trying to restructure Ethiopia’s debt to China, while also trying to convince other international lenders and donors to let Ethiopia use the money that had been earmarked to pay off several of the loans. of the country to finance measures against the pandemic and others. development related projects. As Business Day reported, last month China even announced a partial cancellation of Ethiopia’s debt.

The AALRT railway stretches into the distance. Photo by Istvan Tarrosy

Infrastructure development projects that required substantial external financing include both the Addis Ababa light rail (tram) and the Addis-Djibouti railway. In our earlier articles, we highlighted the significant number of loans from the China Export Import Bank which, in the case of the AALRT, secured enough financing for construction to begin in December 2011.

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A critical review article by Bouraima et al. published in the Journal of Transport Geography, confirmed our view on the insufficient feasibility planning of the projects, which in the case of the AALRT resulted in a substantial amount of money needed for maintenance. As Bouraima et al. They point out that “poor feasibility studies can contribute to mega-infrastructure cost and time overruns and their subsequent operational challenges.” In our follow-up research we were able to record several of these challenges.

The once impressive-looking Addis Tram has been struggling with many problems. in a May 2022 report, it was highlighted that substantial theft further decimated the electricity supply infrastructure, which was having a hard time providing sufficient support for trams already running in 2018. According to one of our local respondents, a university professor of political science, this reveals another Dimension of The problem: as long as people do not feel ownership of the infrastructure, they will not think it is a sin to steal “from the government”. The speaker advocated for more education and efforts to increase social awareness.

The former grandeur of the AALRT, originally on a par with many metropolises around the world, has diminished rather quickly, with broken chairs at stations, uncollected trash along train tracks, and substantial dirt on the surface of track sheds.

A broken bench at an AALRT station. Photo by Istvan Tarrosy

We write down in our first article about the tram that in the first 14 months of operation, the system, which was initially designed to move up to 60,000 people per hour, transported an average of 105,000 to 110,000 passengers per day. We noticed power issues in 2018, which have since been compounded by the theft and maintenance issues described above.

Although the AALRT started with 41 trains on both lineswe now know that the vast majority of them are no longer in operation. According to a recent article, only 17 train vehicles remained on both routes as of early 2020 (the Blue North-South line had nine trains in operation, while the Green East-West line had eight trains). Based on our research on weekday peak hours, in early 2023, the situation is pretty similar; a little better on the blue line and worse on the green line. The service disruptions continued in 2022 and 2023 with a further reduction in the number of cars, although officials never highlighted the exact number of trains in operation. The number of daily passengers has fallen to 56,000.

István Tarrosy

An AALRT station seen from a distance. Photo by Istvan Tarrosy.

According to Obsie et al., the average wait time on the green line in 2020 was 12 minutes, while the average wait time on the blue line was 15 minutes. However, in January 2023, during rush hour, the average wait time on the Green Line was 19 minutes, with only six trains operating on that line, marking a further decline in the number of trains. The Blue line had 10 trains, with a double train of these, and the average wait time was 13 minutes, according to our calculation on the spot.

All these statistics indicate that just one additional train has improved waiting times on the Blue Line, and our experience indicates that overcrowding has also decreased, much more than on the Green Line, where the loss of two trains has increased waiting times. expected by almost 60 percent compared to 2020.

A wagon engine at a station. Photo by Istvan Tarrosy

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While looking for the causes, we discovered two potential problems, probably interconnected: car engine overload problems and improper maintenance. In the first instance, according to a study, the traction motors support a mechanical load that exceeds the intended overload capacity of the train. According to this document, a single train can accommodate 254 passengers at normal capacity and 317 passengers with seats and standing room only when overloaded. However, the operational scenario showed that even in the worst traffic conditions, a train can carry up to 60 additional passengers.

The second problem is related to insufficient imports of spare parts and the lack of maintenance experts. although we said in our first article in 2018 a full knowledge transfer was planned in three to four years, maintenance remained an issue even after this period. The situation pushed the Ethiopian Railways Corporation in 2022 to extends contracts with two Chinese consultancies tasked with handling such work for the light rail service. Therefore, the knowledge transfer is not yet 100 percent complete. The Reporter, an Ethiopian website, claims that $60 million is needed for spare parts to repair the missing vehicles. The cost of the entire project was $475 million, so nearly 13 percent of that amount is required to keep the streetcars running just a few years after the lines opened to the public.

As we noted last month, these aggravating issues have resulted in individual trains not being able to accommodate all waiting passengers. It’s not always possible for waiting passengers to get into the car they want to take, and we found passengers left out of trains due to lack of space, even during off-peak hours.

Sometimes the overcrowding makes getting on the tram a real physical exercise. Photo by Istvan Tarrosy

This modern technology has become like a minibus, which is still among the most used means of transportation on a daily basis. A minibus (the matatu in Kenya, or the dala dala in Tanzania), which in many cases is an old Toyota HiAce originally with 12 seats, often carries 18-20 people.

The bulk of tram passengers, like minibus passengers, must wait in long lines for their turn to board. As long as there are far fewer trains in service than the potential need and ridership, coupled with the fact that operating times are quite slow, in numerous cases, especially during peak hours, it is a difficult physical exercise to get into the train. . We ourselves were unsuccessful in several cases.

After boarding, it can take an hour or an hour and a half to reach the Ayat junction on a 10-kilometer road, as another of our local respondents, a taxi driver, told us.

Addis has taken several promising steps to organize traffic, including traffic lights, signals and special lights showing the time remaining for a color change installed at many of the most congested traffic junctions. Near tram stations, such equipment has also been installed, but according to our observations, it often does not work. As we wrote in our first article in the series, it is sometimes deadly to cross the road to get to the station. Visible crosswalks and working traffic lights would help a lot.

In general, if the AALRT worked well in terms of frequency and predictability, it would help local transportation needs. It is also much cheaper than any other means of transport. However, the fact that it is not working properly leaves Addis not only with irritated passengers, but also with a company that is losing money. Furthermore, investing in this way places significant pressure on urban transport by taking space away from minibuses and taxis.

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