The road to Nagad Railway Station – Djibouti’s first and only passenger train station and terminus of the new 754km Addis Ababa-Djibouti electric rail – skips past the old rail tracks laid in 1917 and tapers just a few metres after the police academy, ending at a T-junction. To the left is the route towards Loyada at the Somali border, and to the right is the dusty path to the station, flanked by colourful flags with Chinese inscriptions – testament to the Chinese loans that funded the project.
A handful of people get onto the shiny new red-and-white train when it pulls up right on schedule at 7:55am then departs a few minutes later. The manager of the station is Chinese; the hostess and some other staff are locals. Launched in January, the trains leave Nagad every other day at 8am and reach the Ethiopian capital by early evening; the return trip follows the same pattern the next day.
“My friends say they are waiting for others to take the train first so they can see if it is safe,” says 25-year old Ali Farah, an accounts clerk at a shipping company, as he slides onto a first-class sleeper soft couch. “They can’t wait to take it soon.”
Tickets cost between 400 and 9,000 francs for soft, hard and bunk-bed sections in the spick-and-span coaches. For those seeking to refuel during the journey, a refreshments coach awaits.
The station’s proximity to the airport, a new university campus and a planned free-trade zone means its passengers will soon include soldiers leaving any of the city’s five military bases for a weekend of partying; foreign students returning home to or via Addis Ababa; Chinese and East African businessmen and their cargo.
Unlike my travelling companions – mostly Chinese businessmen with the right of way across both Horn of Africa countries – my visa only takes me as far as Ali Sabieh, 10km north of the border. As we approach the country’s second-biggest city, camels stride gracefully across the landscape, stretching as if inviting me to return to Djibouti on their backs. It is an honour I have to respectfully decline.
The train’s next stop is the border town of Dire Dawa, then Adama and finally it will reach Labu in Addis Ababa later that day – a journey of many days by road or the narrow gauge.
From the March 2018 print edition
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