Jan 19, 2007 (ASMARA) — Tracing a finger on a faded map of Eritrea’s former railway line, Amanuel Ghebreselassie is a man with a vision.
Manager of the Eritrean Railways Rehabilitation Project, he plans to replace and extend one of the world’s last operational steam railways all the way to Sudan.
Eritrea restarted its steam train service in 2002 after a 27-year interruption. Its antique engines now slowly chug the 117-kilometres from the Red Sea port of Massawa up 2,394 metres to mountainous Asmara, one of the highest capitals in Africa.
"We already replaced the line to Asmara," he said, spreading a musty 40-year-old track survey dating from Eritrea’s period of control by arch-foe Ethiopia.
"Now we want to take it all the way to the Sudan border." Started in 1887 under Italian colonial rule but left in ruins following years of war, Eritrea plans to extend it by 333 kilometres, including 109 kilometres even further west than it originally ran.
He plans to create a 450-kilometre route crossing the whole country, from Massawa in the east to the Sudanese border near Tessenei in the west.
The task is a giant project, but is not just a dream. Grading of the route ready for track re-laying has already been completed for 73-kilometres on what is now a grassy track.
Salvageable rails once ripped up to re-inforce trenches in its 30-year independence war from neighbour Ethiopia have been collected ready to be relayed, rock chippings to line the track stockpiled high, and negotiations begun concerning buildings and roads built on the original route.
Extending the line is hoped to give an economic boost by creating a freight route for goods from the newly opened free trade zone of Massawa, and to transport zinc and gold from mines due to start production in 2008 to the port.
"The mines have asked about using the line," Amanuel said, adding it would also improve access for goods into Sudan.
Alongside the steam trains, Eritrea plans to buy up to five new diesel locomotives to haul heavy freight, and flat bed wagons are already being adapted to carry shipping containers.
Ingenious engineers have also converted two Russian-built lorries captured from Ethiopia during the independence war for rail use, and they hope to buy new engines to restore old diesel locomotives.
The railway is a symbol of national pride and self-reliance for Africa’s youngest country, a showpiece of reconstruction under the toughest of situations.
Improving relations with former rival Sudan following a recent peace deal between Khartoum and eastern rebels along their shared border has given added impetus to the project.
Yet it remains commercially unviable, running sporadically only when chartered by visiting train enthusiasts or local tourists.
The railway once moved over 200,000 tonnes of freight at its peak in 1957, but today almost all freight now goes by the twisting mountain road. The plan also faces several major hurdles.
In Asmara, the track lies under several major buildings, while stations must be reclaimed from use as offices, warehouses, bus stations or homes.
Powerful engines and expensive rails must be ordered from Europe, but promised government funding has been delayed, with Eritrea’s economy squeezed by the unresolved frontier issue following its bloody 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia.
"We are ready to lay the track now, but we have to buy new rails that are very expensive," Amanuel added. "Before we reused the old tracks and sleepers."
Yet he dismisses doubts about its eventual completion, insisting that once funding is granted, work will be swift. "It will not take much time: we accumulated a lot of experience in replacing the track up to Asmara," he said.
And while the line is run by an aging septuagenarian staff called out of semi-retirement to return to the yards, Amanuel stresses that around 1,000 soldiers are assigned to the job, currently reinforcing completed sections.
Jennie Street, a British author co-writing the railway’s history with Amanuel, points out that the difficult mountain stretch was completed despite severe restrictions.
"The rehabilitation continued through the retrenchment and economic crisis caused by the border war, and even where its progress was slowed considerably, it never wavered in its goal of re-opening the entire route," Street said by email.
And while she warned that the proposed extension to Sudan is an even greater challenge, she is optimistic for its eventual success.
"The plans to connect with the Sudanese border are even bigger," Street added. "But even though this is a long way off, their record of ability to triumph over adversity leads me to have confidence that they will one day achieve it, and be an inspiration not only in Africa, but for railways in the rest of the world."
In Asmara’s old station, the coal-fired engine delights children on a special school trip, laughing excitedly as white steam and black smoke billow into the air.
For now, the engines are used only for fun, although the visitors say they will continue to come.
"I have led four trips to Eritrea, and plan to come back," said Adrian Palmer of the Locomotive Club of Great Britain. "It’s one of the most interesting and spectacular lines in the world."