Commuters in Addis Ababa have welcomed a new and modern mass transport system this week – the Addis Ababa Light Rail Transit. Touted as Sub-Saharan Africa’s first light rail transit, the project commenced revenue operation on Sunday, September 21. The milestone was greeted with a huge sense of excitement and pride among the public as well as rave international media coverage. Getachew Betru (PhD) (Eng.), CEO of Ethiopian Railways Corporation (ERC), is relieved to see the project providing service to the public but adds the journey has been a bumpy ride. In an exclusive interview with Mikias Sebsibe and Yohannes Anberbir of The Reporter, Getachew recalls the challenges the project faced along the way, addresses concerns related to safety, integration with other transport modalities and uninterrupted power supply. The CEO also shades light as to expansion plans for the city light rail during the second GTP. Excerpts:
The Reporter: First of all congratulations for seeing through the first rail project of the corporation go partially operational. In light of the challenges to accomplish this project and the current huge international media coverage, how excited are you?
Getachew Betru: Thank you. For an outside observer it may seem like the project was a walk in the park but there were a lot of challenges along the way. In Ethiopia, it is often said that projects do not get accomplished during a life span of one manager let alone within the project’s time table. But this project is accomplished within the specified time table, budget and quality. There was no significant time overrun for the infrastructure to be completed. Some say the project was delayed because they confuse the infrastructure project and the operation phase. The operation phase is a separate contract. The infrastructure project reached near completion by the end of last year. It is true the commercial operation took longer time. That is because we had to go through a stringent safety and security regime. That took a good six months while the requirement is three months. Added to this is the various stakeholders working with the project. Not all function with the same pace. In this regard, the situation in our country is a mess. For instance, the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCo) split into two in the middle of this project. We had to work with the Addis Ababa Water and Sewerage Authority (AAWSA) to relocate a major water pipeline on the East-West corridor. So, this was the environment we were operating in. You can take your takings. Some people praise only the contractor. Indeed, it is the first time for the contractor to undertake a project like this in Sub-Saharan Africa. But we always say, a contractor is as good as his client. If the client is flimsy, then the project will be compromised. We had our own worries when the tram started operation like you would expect with any new project. Imagine if something goes wrong. So, seeing the smooth operation is really huge for me.
We have observed that there are still works that needs to be completed even in the North-South corridor which is now giving service. Why the urgency to start operation when there are still works to be done?
Civil engineering and infrastructure works are endless. When the project reaches above 85 or 95 percent completion, it has passed the critical path. Then you will have two options. One is to wait until the project reaches near completion. By the way, there is no such thing as 100 percent completion. The industry parlance is near completion. There is a defect liability period on the contract which starts after the project is transferred to the client. In our case it is three years. If anything goes wrong within that period, the contractor would do maintenance. When you decide to go operational, you take all these into consideration. The works that remain, whether it is painting or others, do not have fundamental impact on the operation or safety. We have consulted with the certifying organ and reached at a conclusion that the tram can go operational. That way we can start generating revenue. In the past few days, we are generating revenue of up to 200 thousand birr on a daily basis from the corridor that is now open for service. However, we have told the contractor to finalize the works within a certain period. Otherwise we would evoke a liquidated damage clause stipulated in our contract.
There is concern with regard to traffic congestion in some sections with the commencement of the light rail service. What are your thoughts on the light rail’s impact on the traffic flow?
I believe the tram system has added value to the traffic. I will explain. Before this project, there was no cross-section when you go, for instance, from Meskel Square to Kality. People used to cross the street at any point at will. The light rail has now streamlined this. There is a point where you can and cannot cross. This is good for traffic flow. It will be uninterrupted. And the stop point is predictable. By my definition this is adding value to the traffic flow. The number of cars in Addis Ababa is around half a million. I do not believe we should even build roads for that. The road built during the imperial period can accommodate that. If you go to the big cities like London and Rome, they are old towns. A road built for horse-pulled carts is still serving. I am an adversary to roads like the new Bole Road [Africa Avenue]. When you build big roads, you invite traffic because everyone comes to that intersection. The problem in our country is traffic management. Instead of investing millions of dollars on big roads within the city, if you spend a fraction of that to put in place a good traffic system, the flow would improve. So, in my view the light rail would have a positive impact to the traffic flow.
During the launch of the project and now during the operation, the design of the project continues to be a contentious issue. What is your defense?
There were a lot of scaremongering on the design. One of the issues raised was that the light rail cuts across communities. People like that think of Addis Ababa as a big village. That is like saying people used to have a coffee with those across the road until the light rail came and disrupted it. You see a smoke coming out of your neighbor’s window from afar and you go for the coffee. That is a village [life] mentality, not a city mentality. A city with a population of more than three million cannot be maintained like that. A city must have a well-planned local development plan where you get most of the things you want in a given locality. When you go to Mercato area, you can see how deprived the city is. From the tram, you can see the corrugated sheets and the shanty towns. Is that our idea of a city we want to have? We do not need to accept this. So, I believe the light rail would lay the base for a city we want to build. We have looked at the various options in terms of the design of the project. People who have been forwarding criticisms on the project’s design, are not worried about the money in their pocket. They suggest whatever hypothetical thing comes to their mind. We have limited resources. At first the contractor asked for USD 600 million to carry out the project. It is through our negotiation that the project cost was reduced to 475 million. It took 18 months to bring the cost down to that amount. If we used tunnel system, the project cost would go further up because of the city’s topography.
What are the safety precautions in place?
The system has been audited before commencing service. There is a dispatch center in Kality where they control the operation. In the command post we have a team comprising of personnel from the National Intelligence and Security Services, the federal police, city police, transport ministry, the contractor as well as the consultant. It is the person in charge at the command center that dictates the operation, not the trainmaster. The trainmaster receives commands from the dispatch center. There is also an in-built automatic train protection system. The train immediately disengages if the trainmaster falls asleep or something else goes wrong. If the gap between two trams exceeds a certain limit, it also disengages to prevent derailment. In addition, every station and cross-sections are fitted with cameras that rotate 360 degree. We also plan to place cameras every 100 meters throughout the route. The whole corridor will be visible and can be controlled easily. The other is, the operation speed limit of the tram. The designed speed is 70km/hour. But we are operating at 20 to 25km/hour to maintain the starting and stopping speed because the stations are only 700 meters apart in average. At this speed, the probability of an accident is very low. If an incident was to happen, it would have happened this week due to the huge eagerness from the public. We have several people that control the system, there are those at the dispatch center, in the tram and at the stations. We have put in place every precaution the industry provides.
The tram is a new addition to the transport system in the city. How about the safety from the perspective of user awareness and integration with other transport modalities?
The local context was one of the concern areas. We had commissioned the Swedish consultant to map what the impact of the light rail would be in the corridor. So, we have a neat study as to how the integration would look like with other transport modalities, especially at junctions. Based on that, we have put in place immediate, medium-term and long-term interventions. In the long-term, we have agreed there should be overpasses at cross-sections. And as such we have consulted with authorities at the Addis Ababa City Roads Authority to construct the overpasses in places such as Adey Ababa and Volvo Garage. As immediate interventions we are putting traffic signs, road markings and bumpers. On top of these, we will be working with the newly set up traffic management unit of the city. We are consulting with Anbessa City Bus to work together. For example, commuters may use the city bus from Bole Bridge to Meskel Square and then board the tram using the same ticket to their next destination. The same in other areas as well. But creating awareness is key. We will invest in awareness creation campaigns.
Power outages are common in the city and therefore there are concerns in terms of supplying an uninterrupted power for the light rail. How do you overcome that?
In my view, there is no power shortage in the country. I believe there is adequate supply. The problem is in transmission and distribution. The power for the light rail is supplied directly from the national grid, not from the Addis Ababa grid. We have GIS stations in all the four points. The North-South corridor utilizes power from the two GIS stations. In case the supply from one is interrupted, the tram will rely on the other. So, unless there is a complete blackout, the operation will not be interrupted. Even then we have diesel trolleys to pull the trams to the next station. The power the light rail requires is not huge. We have a power meter at the sub-stations, it can easily be quantified although I do not have the figures at hand at the moment. It was on September 20 that we received our dedicated line. Before that, we were temporarily sharing with the city. We still could have taken power from the city’s share and no factory or neighborhood would experience shortage because of that.
Power supply is cited as the reason for the delay in operation for East-West corridor. Why the delay and when can we expect the section to go operational?
What happened was Tidhar, a contractor commissioned by AACRA (Addis Ababa City Roads Authority) to work on the East-West corridor failed to deliver. And it stopped communication at the eleventh hour. [Tidhar is an Israeli construction company currently embroiled in tax evasion charges]. This was some one month ago. And so we pulled the plug and handed the contract to another contractor to finalize two kilometres work. Currently, a roughly 200 meters work remains and as soon as that is completed, we will start testing. In my estimate, the revenue operation will start in mid-October. If you can manage to launch the operation of two direction rail line simultaneously, then you must be very good at light rail construction and operation. But the safest way is to test one direction and then the other. In our case, even the West line [from Tor Hailoch to Lideta] has been tested and we could have used it. But for safety matters we decided not to start operation. We did not want to be adventurous on the risks. On top of that it only serves two stations. So the initial plan was to commence operation on North, South and West sections. The route from Lideta to Meskel Square is a common section for both directions and it is currently serving.
In the first days of the light rail operation long queues are observed at ticket offices and longer waiting time at stations. What is your assessment of the current operation and what is the ideal scenario in the future?
Initially, the plan is to offer on-board ticketing. But after simulation, we realized that the on-board ticketing is not the right method. It could take a person three minutes to buy the paper ticket and exchange money. So, we decided to offer off-board ticketing service. For that we need to have ticket offices on both sides of the road. Now, we know that the ticket offices we have so far do not match the number of offices on the plan. We have told the contractor that within few weeks there should be ticket offices on both sides of the road at every station. We have seen how it was the first day. It was not about a transport service. It was sort of like tourism. We are also considering offering our tickets to kiosks at discounts so that commuters can buy there. That will also reduce the queues at ticket offices. So, during the operation phase there will be continuous improvements. But this is also temporary. In about two months, we will have a calibration machine and introduce e-tickets. We have imported some two thousand e-tickets which need to be calibrated. So, ideally the ticketing system will be paperless.
How about in terms of waiting time at stations?
At this moment, a tram arrives at a station every 25 minutes. At first it was fifteen minutes. But the number of people we were transporting was smaller and so it should be demand driven. The command post dispatches trams seeing the number of people at stations. In addition, not all our trams are currently dispatched. It is 12 trams that are giving service at the moment while the plan is to dispatch 21 trams in one corridor. The system absorbs trams at three minutes interval between stations. We can also link two trams. One can transport up to 300 passengers.
There were plans to further extend the light rail from all four directions to the outskirts of the city. What are the latest developments?
It is still active. We currently have a five-phase study we are proposing to the government. We have accomplished the first phase. The direction from the government for future light rail projects is that the lines should go either underground or over a bridge because land is becoming very expensive. Just to give you an idea, Phase Two includes a line from Giorgis passing along Mexico Square, the African Union headquarters to Jommo then connects to Lebu where there is the national railway network. The entire route will be either underground or over a bridge except for some six hundred meters near the AU where it will go at grade. The other line extends from Megenagna-Bole Airport-Wello Sefer-Saris-Jommo then connects to Lebu. The others include from Ayat to Legetafo, Tor Hailoch to Burayu and from Giorgis to Shiro Meda. The aim is to connect the huge social housing sites as well as industrial areas such as Bole-Lemi industrial park. This all is planned under the second GTP period. A single line is said to provide effective service if it stretches from 15 to 18 kilometers. So, that is the average length of each line and all will be linked to create a network. That means commuters can transfer from one line to another to get to their destination once they are in the railway system. We follow the same path for the national network. I believe a railway network is no longer a luxury for us. We have reached a point of no return in terms of demand for a railway network. And the government is committed to provide the network in an equitable manner. In the next six months we will declare the way Phase Two project will commence.
How about finance?
We will be following a different path in terms of financing the project. We followed a debt-driven method for the first phase with 85 percent financed through loan. This time it will be purpose-driven and will not have an impact on the country’s external debt level. The line is linked to local development plans and the rail project itself is the collateral. The corporation will use the project as collateral to access bank loans. The Chinese city of Shenzhen was developed in the same manner. Three decades ago, this place was a rice farm. Now, it is a city that competes with New York. Shenzhen Metro [the Chinese company with manages the Addis light rail] owns 80 percent of the city. We will also be following a different methodology of construction. The construction should be done without disrupting the city. It can and should be done smoothly. Colons and bridges should be prefabricated and simply erected on the site. Only foundation works should be done on the site. For the underground, tunnel boring machine (TBM) should be employed. The kind of machine used at Gilgel Gibe II hydropower project.