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Ethiopia's Imperial Train System Gets A Makeover

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Ethiopia has one of the world's fastest-growing economies. But among the challenges to its continued growth is transportation. Long-distance travel in the east African country is pretty low-tech, with people largely relying on a system of creaky buses on bumpy roads. But with the help of China, Turkey and the European Union, Ethiopia is building a new railway network, as well as restoring its moth-balled, century-old imperial train system. Benno Muchler sends us this postcard.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

BENNO MUCHLER, BYLINE: It's 10 a.m. on a weekday at the main train station in Ethiopia's second-largest city, Dire Dawa. Baboons climb around a workshop overgrown with vegetation. A woman hangs her laundry on a clothesline. Train operator Fantahoun Bekele and his coworkers doze in the shade of a big cinchona tree doing...

FANTAHOUN BEKELE: (Through translator) Nothing. We come here, sit down, play cards. Right over there, behind the rails - if you like, I can show you later - we started a small garden where we grow cabbage, onions and pepper.

MUCHLER: Ethiopia's oldest and only railway line is closed. Two years ago, the government stopped service on the line because it was in poor condition and was unprofitable. But the state-owned railway authority kept Bekele and 575 of his colleagues on the job to maintain the old trains while the system is restored.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MUCHLER: Bekele gives a tour through the old, first-class wagons made in France in 1964. Cigarettes lie on the ground, brown dust layers the cream-white leather seats. Three mechanics lounge over two benches in the rear, chatting.

The train used to run at 37 miles per hour across the desert on a nearly 500-mile narrow gauge track from Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden to the capital, Addis Ababa. It was so slow that many people sat on the roof to cool themselves off.

Bekele began as a driver in 1991. When he started, it was a dangerous job. Ethiopia's government had been in power only briefly, and was still struggling with rebels in many regions.

BEKELE: (Through translator) When I once drove the train, someone had buried three mines under the rails. They exploded when we drove over it. The co-driver, my friend, lost his right foot. Our radio operator lost his left foot. Thanks to God, I didn't get hurt. The good Lord saved my life.

MUCHLER: The French built the railway a century ago for Emperor Menelik, and French influences linger, including the French spoken by Bekele and other station staff. The European Union is underwriting the restoration of the old railway while China and Turkey are building the new network for $3.2 billion.

The most important line will be a new route to Djibouti, whose port handles 90 percent of Ethiopia's cross-border trade. The government in Addis Ababa foresees 15,000 new jobs and promises high-speed trains, like in Europe and Asia.

Building railroads in a mountainous country like Ethiopia is, of course, quite a challenge, said Dereje Tefera, the spokesman of the Ethiopian Ministry of Transport.

DEREJE TEFERA: The railway transport system is very important in Ethiopia, because our economies develop from time to time. And our export and import could start develop. It needs a railway transport. When you see the trucks or the road transports, it's costly and time consuming.

MUCHLER: While it's not clear when renovation will be completed because of bad management of the project, construction of the first phase of the new line aims to be done by 2015.

For NPR News, I'm Benno Muchler in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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