Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, has now an operating light rail system. The first line commenced operations on September 20, 2015, while second line is still under construction. The significance of this rail system should not be undermined, given this is not Europe where every large city has effective public transport system.
Almost every large city in Africa suffers from heavy traffic, and transport systems are nothing short of chaotic. Addis Ababa has now shown that brand new rail infrastructure can be built within a densely built city. The next challenge is it to be an operational success.
The Addis light rail is being built, largely funded, and also operated by the Chinese. The network has double tracks to allow frequent service and is partly underground. Apart from the two initial lines, more lines are under planning. The ride cost up to 6 Birr (0.27 USD). Ticketing sounds cheap, but there are plenty of poor people in Addis who still can’t afford it.
The rail network, even if expanded from its initial two lines, will not reach every part of the city. It should be supplemented with a bus network using the same ticketing system. Only then people can conveniently travel around the city by public transport regardless where they live, work and spend their free time.
It is essential that car-owning middle and upper class commuters will adopt the new railway. The risk is that they will shun it citing safety concerns and poor connections. Then they will keep driving to work every day and traffic jams will stay, probably only getting worse.
Another challenge is how electric rail system will work in a city where power outages are a commonplace. Addis light rail has its separate grid, but this is of little help when power generation is too low.
What will Addis Ababa urban rail system will be ten years from now? Will it flourish and transform Addis residents’ transport habits for good? Or will it be let run-down like what has happened to almost every African railway system? For the sake of other cities, Africa needs a positive example what effective public transport is like.
Several North African cities have urban rail systems, but there are only few in Sub-Saharan Africa. Many cities have existing railways passing through, but in most cases these are in derelict state and not used to passenger traffic, if any traffic, at all. Instead the public transport relies on minivans and buses with little government control, and these usually contribute to, rather than alleviate congested traffic.
Gauteng area (Johannesburg-Pretoria) had two separate rail systems, Metrorail used by lower social classes, and the more posh Gautrain. Durban and Cape Town have also Metrorail networks.
Nairobi has so-called commuter rail, but it only runs in the morning and late afternoon. Coupled with unreliability, it is exactly what an effective urban rail system should not be. The new Soykimau line has nice stations though, but seeing only few trains a day. It is unlikely that the Nairobi urban rail would be upgraded anytime soon, even the planned Airport link seems to have been stalled. Instead, Nairobi urban transport plan is now based on Rapid Bus system.
Dar es Salaam’s long-awaited Rapid Bus Transit system is set to be operational later this year. The city has also limited peak-time only commuter train system, similar to Nairobi.
The Nigerian capital Lagos has urban rail network still under planning, however, it will still take will years to be operational.
After decades of neglect, it is positive to see major African cities now taking their transport crisis seriously and public transport is being developed in the right direction. A railway line or two will not solve problems, but is a good start anyway. Proper planning is vital, be it railway, bus or minivans, these should form a coherent network offering frequent and convenient, yet cheap enough services around the city.
Investing in public transport, especially in railways is very expensive. It may be cost-effective to let privately run minivans to take care of commuters. But eventually, the costs of heavy traffic jams far exceed the amount investing in better public transport would take. To date, if any measures have been made to reduce traffic jams, it has been building of new roads, but once number of cars increases traffic jams will be as bad as always.
In European cities most people prefer public transport, regardless of their social status. As usual, Africa is a different story. The poorest may walk long distances because the cannot afford existing public transport no matter how cheap it is. Then there are middle class car owners who opt not to use public transport because they don’t have to. Creating a public transport system that caters everyone’s needs is a challenge no African city has answered yet.