Addis-Djibouti SGR Line: Cheap is expensive!


Workers building embankments
on the Kenyan SGR
This headline, in an Ethiopian publication, Addis Standard of December7th, 2020, dismayed me.

It reported about a meeting held by the Management of Ethiopia Railways Corporation and local residents of the Amhara Region. The purpose was to educate the local people on the benefits of the Railway line and to motivate them to protect it.

 The Corporation, said the Managers, had lost 114 million Ethiopian Birr (US$2.961 million), in the quarter ending September 31, 2020, due to vandalism and theft of Railway infrastructure. This crime, said the Managers had forced the train, an electric train, to slow its speed from 80Kph to 50 Kph thus slowing freight movement between Addis-Ababa and Djibouti port, by six hours. The 705 MK journey would normally take 12 hours but now extends to 18 hours.

 The Addis-Djibouti Railway line is the first electricity propelled line in Africa. It cost some US$4 billion to construct. It is a level crossing line with little elevation. According to the managers of the line, apart from theft and vandalism of the line’s infrastructure, accidents have also become a headache for the line.  So far, tens of people and hundreds of livestock have been killed in accidents on the line. Also, last year, a freight train derailed when it ran into flooded rails.

 To protect their assets, said the managers, the corporation had to construct 60 kilometers of a fence in the notorious spots. However, they explained, the cost of fencing the entire Railway line is prohibitive. That is why they called this educational forum to sensitize local people to protect the line. However, this does not appear to be a solution since the livestock cannot be sensitized not to cross the line even when trains are approaching. Nor can floods be stopped from occurring.

 The Addis–Djibouti railway line is treated as the benchmark of a cost-efficient railway line in East Africa. It cost US$4 billion to build 705 kilometers of a Standard Gauge Railway whose trains are propelled by electricity.   This works to an average of $5.674 million per kilometer including works, electrification, and hardware- that is locomotives and wagons. In fact, the cost has been hailed as value for money by politicians and commentators in East Africa.

 However, as the old adage goes, proof of the pudding is in the eating. Thus it looks like the low price was not value for money. The Addis-Djibouti line is beset with critical operational problems that reduce its efficiency and reliability- the core targets of its development.  These are symptoms of poor decision making in project implementation where key variables in the success of the project were assumed away.  The key variable that apparently was ignored is the environmental impact assessment. How will the Railway line affect the environment especially in relation to property and safety of the people neighboring the line?

  The key driver in the implementation of the line appears to have been cost minimization. Cost minimization is the worst decision diver in any project implementation decision. Initial cost minimization could lead to further costs in the future- both financial and economic.

This is the case with the Addis-Djibouti line. The decision to build a low elevation level crossing line with no bridges was a fatal blunder for a high- speed railway line.  Engineers tell us that in railways and road projects, bridges raise costs by 30 percent. This is to say that, had the Addis–Djibouti line been elevated even to three meters, the entire project would have cost six to seven billion dollars.

 The much-maligned Kenyan line is elevated, in some sections up to 43 meters,  but generally, the average elevation is three meters.  The elevation was meant to eliminate accidents along the line- whether collisions with animals, people, or vehicles. That is why it has no level crossings.

 A  High-speed train is meant to cut travel time for freight and passengers and cut incidental costs. It must always run at a higher speeds-say 80 Kph for freight trainers and 120 Kph for Passenger trains.  The Kenyan SGR achieves these speeds; the passenger train travels for 4 hours at 120 KPH between Nairobi and Mombasa while the freight trains take 8 hours at 80Kph. No accidents have been reported along the line and theft of Railway infrastructure and furniture is punishable by death in Kenya.

 In the Ethiopian case, the goal was to cut travel time between Djibouti port and Addis Ababa to 12 hours for freight trains and even less for passenger trains doing 120-160 kph.  That appears to be a mirage for now and into the future. Fencing 60 kilometers of the line has not helped, because livestock, including camels, break the fence to get to the other side. To reach these optimal speeds, if at all, the Ethiopian Railways Corporation, will have to bite the bullet and elevate the line.

 In hindsight then, there was wisdom in the construction of the “expensive” Kenyan line because all these factors were considered and paid for.  Perhaps this is why the Central Corridor has a number of underpasses which helps keep its elevation low and costs relatively low.

 Experts in the northern Corridor line, linking Kenya, Uganda, and other landlocked countries in the region, who have been cast as corrupt, will have the last laugh once the causes of the problems bedeviling the Ethio-Djibouti line crystalize. Cheap can be expensive!


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