Joyous Africans Take to the Rails, With China's Help
By Andrew Jacobs, New York Times
February 9, 2017

DJIBOUTI — The 10:24 a.m. 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 peoples,” said Hailemariam Desalegn, the prime minister of Ethiopia, shortly before the train — the first electric, transnational railway in Africa — headed toward 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 466-mile line. And the $4 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. Chinese-built subway cars will soon appear in Chicago and Boston, Beijing is building a $5 billion high-speed rail line in Indonesia, and the Chinese government recently christened new rail freight service between London and Beijing. Another ambitious system in the works, the 2,400-mile Pan-Asia Railway Network, would link China to Laos, Thailand and Singapore.

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.

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 unto the breach, spending some $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.

Many of the projects are part of Beijing’s new Silk Road initiative, a $1 trillion effort intended to deepen ties between China and its trading partners in the developing world.

Much of that spending has been directed at rail projects that planners hope will transform the way Africans travel and do business with one another, and the rest of the world.

Chinese-built and -financed projects include a two-year-old light-rail system in the Ethiopian capital; a $13 billion rail link between the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and the port city of Mombasa that will open later this year; and an ambitious rail modernization project in Nigeria that includes an urban transit system for Lagos.

“For the longest time, railroads across Africa were limping along and in decline, but with the Chinese, that’s definitely changing,” said Andrew Grantham, the news editor at Railway Gazette International, a trade publication.

China’s enthusiasm for constructing railroads, 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. One of the few exceptions, Power Africa, a $9.7 billion initiative announced by President Barack Obama in 2013, has fallen far short of its goal of providing electricity to 20 million households within five years.

 


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