The International Steam Pages

Eritrean Railway Revival

The following (unedited) document is a summary as presented to 2002 visitors (U$1 = 20 Nakfa on the free market approximately, 15 Nakfa at the official rate).


The railways line covered 306.4 Kms on a route from Massawa to Agordat via Asmara and Keren. Starting from the port of Massawa the line rises to an altitude of 2394 meters in Asmara (Bet-Giorghis) and then falls down to an altitude of 606 meters in Agordat. This sharp increase and decrease in altitude within short distance, especially in the section Ghinda - Asmara and Keren - Hummed makes the line spectacular and one of the best tourist sights in the world. The construction of the railway line was begun in autumn of 1887. In March 1888 the first 25 Kms were opened to traffic. Asmara was reached in December 1911 and the present terminus at Agordat in February 1928. It was originally intended to continue the line to Tessenei and construction was completed as for as Biscay 31Kms, beyond Agordat. The Agordat - Biscay section was, however, taken up during the war in 1942.

The railway system which was the main artery of all Eritrean trade and economic activities was carrying over 200.000 tons per year running four regular trains daily in each direction on the Massawa - Asmara line. When necessary the number was easily doubled. In fact, when the railway was running at its maximum capacity in 1935 (March to October) 38 trains were run during 24 hours in each direction on the Massawa - Asmara line. This indicates the developing possibility of the railway system. The system had well equipped workshops, diesel and steam loco sheds to perform general overhauling and running repair and maintenance. Moreover, it had very efficient and effective communication network, exchange and dispatching system which is confirmed by its accident-free handling of traffic throughout its history. For almost 20 years (1975-1994) what had been an efficient system, carrying freight and passengers and the largest employer in the country fell prey to the needs of warring armies, ravages of weather and landslides. Rails and sleepers were used to build war trenches. Work-shops, tools and equipment were abandoned, dismantled, scattered and plundered. The rolling stock was left to dilapidation. When Independence dawned, the most visible signs of the railways system were the skeleton of the once active stations, the tunnels and bridges that marked the skills of the Italian engineers, scattered track and rusted rolling stock.

On April 1994 the Ministry of Transport with the help of Ministry of Construction and railway veterans commissioned three technical committees to assess the state of the railway. One looked at the condition of the rolling stock and work-shops, another assessed the earth works, tunnels and bridges and the third studied the availability and condition of the track pieces. The preliminary study revealed that although the system has incurred heavy damages, all its aspects were found to be in sufficient quantity and rehabilitatable condition. Above all the technical committee found out that there were enough veteran workers who know each and every detail of the system.

These skilled old men not only can reactivate the system, but could also train and transfer-their accumulated experience and know-how to the young generation. Based on the committee's report, the government formed a project to reconstruct Asmara - Massawa segment exactly as it was and bring it back to life again.


The main objectives of the Rehabilitation Project are:-

1. It is Estimated that the transporting capacity of 100- 150.000 Tons of freight between Asmara & Massawa could easily be made available from the existing Rolling stoke with minor maintenance. Thus relieving the already congested road of Asmara-Massawa.

2. It would revitalize the agricultural production of the Demas area (5000-7000 Hectares) which were almost abandoned after the disruption of the railway service in 1975.

3. The railway station of Mai-Atal could easily be developed into excellent infrastructural facility as a dry port extension of the Port of Massawa. It could provide not only space for expanding storage facilities but would also reduce the amount of heavy traffic inside Massawa having beneficent effects of environment and safety.

4. The Tourist attraction of the reconstructed Railways is estimated to be very high.

5. The whole reconstruction cost i.e.

  • Rehabilitation of the 117 km

  • Repair and maintenance of locomotives and rolling stock

  • Rehabilitation of work-shop Garages & Stations ... is estimated to be very low in the range of 45-50 million Nakfa. This would enable to reduce the cost of transport by about 50 - 60% compared to that of the road and still be profitable.

6. It is believed that safety is much higher in rail transport then in road transport.

7. To transfer the accumulated know how and experience of the veteran workers to the younger generation.

These objectives are expected to be achieved by the year 2002. As to the Asmara-Agordat section and beyond a study is under way. The result of the feasibility study will determine the decision to be taken.

When the reconstruction work of Massawa - Asmara segment is completed, several tasks as to be performed to operate the system effectively. To mention some:

a. Upgrading the project in to an institutionalized organization by forming appropriate departments such as Operation, Technical engineering. Civil engineering ... etc. Fully equipped with qualified personnel and equipment

b, Renovation and rehabilitation of railway work-shops and garages.

c. Purchase of convenient rail-cars and locomotives.

Rob Dickinson