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April 7th, 2016
Infrastructure • Cities • Energy

Light Rail Transit in Addis Ababa

The Ethiopian government decided to address the congested roads of the capital, Addis Ababa, by commissioning a new urban metro, largely funded, constructed and run by Chinese institutions. It is the first light railway to be built in sub-Saharan Africa and the first line opened in September 2015.

The initiative

The national and city government gave the problem serious consideration. A steering committee was set up in December 2007, the Ethiopian Railways Corporation (ERC) took charge in March 2008, contracts for its construction were signed in September 2009, and it began running services six years later. “On September 21st, the city opened the first part of its new urban metro. It is the first light rail system to be built anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, though a few South African cities have commuter rail services.” [2]

It was 85 percent financed by the Export-Import Bank of China through a loan agreement signed with the Chinese government in June 2011, built by the China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group, and provides capacity for 15,000 passengers per hour in each direction,

Its objectives are to:

  • Provide an alternative means of public transport to the city's road-based system.
  • Speed up passenger journey times.
  • To provide a more environmentally-friendly transport option.

The US$475 million Light Rail Project (LRT) is a joint venture between Ethiopia and China and the first of its kind for the city and sub-Saharan Africa.

The challenge

In 2007, Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, had two main forms of transport: buses supplied by the state-owned company, Anbessa; and the ‘blue donkeys’, blue-and-white minibus taxis. “There is, however, an increasing discrepancy between supply and demand, according to Mulugeta Gudeta of the Addis Ababa Chamber of Commerce ... ‘The state of public transportation in Addis Ababa is perhaps the weakest link in the otherwise fast growing economy in the Ethiopian capital’.” [1] The next step was to find a solution that did not add to the traffic congestion on the capital’s already crowded roads.

The public impact

The opened line runs for 11 miles from the industrial areas in the south of Addis Ababa to the centre of the city. A second, east-west, line of the same length is currently under construction. The two lines, which have their own dedicated power grid, will be able to carry 60,000 passengers an hour when they are fully operational. Fares are 6 ETB (about US$0.30) per journey.

Stakeholder engagement

The Addis Ababa LRT secured strong support from the Ethiopian and Chinese governments. The Ethiopian government provided 15 percent equity for the proposed LRT project in Addis Ababa and China’s Export-Import Bank, an arm of the Chinese government, paid for the rest of the US$475m cost. There were several other external Chinese stakeholders: the China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group were the contracting party for construction, while the metro will be run until 2020 by the Shenzhen Metro Group and the China Railway Engineering Corporation.

Political commitment

The Addis Ababa LRT project was firmly supported by the Ethiopian government, as is evident from the 15 percent funding of the first phase and the negotiations with the Chinese government.

Public confidence

The general public supported the project in the main and recognised its benefits. “Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn thanked the city's residents for their patience during the construction of the line. He said that as well as solving transport problems in the city and reducing carbon emissions, knowledge and technology transfers involved would enable the country to use its own human resources in future rail projects.” [3]

There was some scepticism about the last point, focusing on the Chinese role in building and running the metro. “Not everyone benefits equally from China's involvement in the project. Several workers in Addis Ababa say they received no formal training from their CREC superiors before getting to work. They suspect their employer doesn't want to spend resources on them, even though some report wages that are relatively generous for unskilled labour.” [4]

There is also resistance from motorists, taxi-drivers and some business owners, among others. “Some citizens of Addis Ababa have mixed feelings about the work these men are doing. Car owners complain that the rails have cut off key turning points, and some businesses on the wrong side of the tracks are now facing losses because their customers don't want to walk all the way down to the nearest pedestrian crossing.” [5]

Clarity of objectives

The objectives of the project were summarised by Desalegn: solving Addis Ababa's transport problems, reducing carbon emissions, and providing knowledge and technology. The detailed objectives were to:

  • Build two twin-track lines in phases, the first phase running north-south, the second phase running east-west.
  • Combine underground and elevated sections.
  • Run the service for up to 18 hours a day at intervals of three to six minutes at peak times.
  • Carry up to 60,000 passengers an hour.

Strength of evidence

The engineering contractor, the China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group, had nearly five decades of experience in completing infrastructure projects. It had recently completed the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway and, an even closer equivalent, the Chongqing Light Rail New Line before it began construction in Addis Ababa in January 2012.

There were also other successful LRT projects in Africa, in Tunis and in South Africa in the Eastern and Western Cape regions among others.


The feasibility was addressed in detail in a number of areas: “conceptual design, preliminary site investigation, bankable feasibility study, environmental and social impact assessment [and] collections of information and basic data on the route”. [6]

The selected route was surveyed using the latest technology, i.e., airborne laser scanning technology (3D object mapping) using Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology. The cost-benefit analysis indicated that the costs would be recovered from ticket sales, renting out spaces in stations, advertising and monetising carbon credits.

Reliable funding for the project was sourced as part of a bilateral treaty between Ethiopia and China.


At present the LRT is managed by Chinese companies, who have significant experience in managing the design, construction and running of urban light railways. The initial stage of running the metro is being overseen by the Chinese company, Shenzhen, which is tasked with training the Ethiopian members of staff and providing knowledge transfer.


This being an infrastructure project, the success or outcome can be measured using operational KPIs such as:

  • Capacity - in terms of number of passengers being carried per hour (projected as a maximum of 60,000).
  • Headway - in terms of duration between successive trains (projected as three to six minutes).


During the construction of the LRT line, the small number of stakeholders were well aligned:

  • The cooperative relationship between Ethiopia and China was founded on a bilateral treaty.
  • The contractors conducted training for local staff. As well as providing 41 vehicles, the Chinese engineering company trained 50 Ethiopian drivers and maintenance staff. “The government hopes that the second phases of the LRT and rail network projects will be carried out entirely by Ethiopian enterprises.” [7]
  • The Ethiopian Culture and Tourism Bureau was involved in a committee for the temporary removal of a statue in order to carry out the construction of one of the LRT lines. “The committee, which will oversee the removal and subsequent reinstatement of the statue of St. Abune Petros has been formed. The committee is comprised of the city's Culture and Tourism Bureau, Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage Authority, Addis Ababa City Roads Authority and the ERC.” [8]

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