Addis Ababa’s Light Rail: A Cautionary Tale for Infrastructure in Africa

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

The light rail project in Addis Ababa, once hailed as a revolutionary solution for the city’s transportation woes, now stands as a symbol of unfulfilled promises. Launched in 2015, it was the first expansive light-rail train (LRT) system in Sub-Sahara Africa. However, the system continues to struggle with breakdowns, inadequate funding, and operational issues.

Financed through a Chinese loan, the project highlights the challenges of infrastructure development in Africa without adequate plans for long term sustainability. Experts point to a lack of long-term planning as a key factor, with insufficient budgeting for maintenance and spare parts. The project was essentially rushed through to completion before the 2015 national elections as a symbol of a nation on the rise. It would later turn out to cause more harm than good.

China Railway Engineering Group handled the three-year construction phase. After launch, they partnered with another Chinese firm, Shenzhen Metro Group, to manage the system’s operation and maintenance for an additional three years. The $475 million project was financed primarily through an 85% loan from China’s Export-Import Bank, with the Ethiopian government covering the remaining cost.

The project’s core issue was poor planning. It failed to establish crucial aspects for long-term success, such as a skilled local workforce for maintenance, a reliable supply chain of spare parts, and a sustainable funding plan. A recent Bloomberg report compares it to a similar situation in Nigeria, where a Chinese-backed railway left the government burdened with expensive upkeep for the infrastructure.

Envisioned to whisk away 60,000 passengers per hour, the light rail currently carries a fraction of that number. Frequent breakdowns and a lack of spare parts leave many trains idle, forcing commuters to wait for extended periods or find alternative transportation, according to Bloomberg.

The city is now actively seeking solutions. Management has been transferred from the national Ethiopian Railways operator to the Addis Ababa transport agency, and consultants are being brought in to identify and address the system’s issues. China has also pledged some support by providing spare parts and additional trains. Last year the Addis Ababa City entered a short-term relief plan by agreeing to fix the existing trains. The deal would provide $23 million worth of spare parts for maintenance and an extra seven trains. While this is a good start, there are still more than 40 train cars laying idol.

Frustrated by progress many now are asking for a revamp of the whole system to prioritize electric buses that have begun to be seen in the city recently. One of the lasting impacts of the LRT in Addis has been its impact in worsening car traffic and complicating life for pedestrians.

The Addis Ababa light rail serves as a cautionary tale for infrastructure projects in developing countries. While offering initial appeal, projects heavily reliant on foreign loans and lacking in long-term sustainability can quickly turn into burdens, leaving citizens frustrated and governments saddled with debt.

Related Posts