The International Steam Pages

The Eritrean Railway 2009

Thomas Kautzor reports:

During our tour, March 8-17, 2009, organized by FarRail, we had the use of steam locomotives 440.008, 442.55 & 442.59, as well as FIAT Littorina N. 2, which had been repaired in time for our tour, after having been involved in a collision with a truck on a previous tour two weeks before ours. 442.54, also on the program, failed at Asmara. On the last day of the tour private charters were run using Krupp diesel locomotive 27D, which also failed before getting to the summit due to a leaking radiator, and the small four-wheel railcar N°. 2 (“Littorinella”, ex-Somalia).

On Sunday March 8, the weekly tourist train was witnessed on its return from Nefasit to Asmara, composed of 440.008 and a single passenger carriage. The following Sunday no tourist train was run due to a lack of bookings.

At Otumlo/Amaterei, both six-wheeled Drewry diesel locomotives were found, together with three open four-wheel coaches. N°. 97 (Drewry 2075/1936) awaiting repairs (missing its middle axle and motions), while the second numberless loco (Drewry 2079/1937) was said to be in charge of the commuter train service to Massawa. Both locos had recently been remotorized with Fiat engines.

The workshops at Asmara (“Officinas”) have now been completely reclaimed by ER, after “Trans Horn Trucking” has opened a new garage on the outskirts of Asmara. As a result, the transverser has been completely undug and tracks are being relaid in the C&W workshop (building N°. 1). The frame of one of the Krupp covered bogie wagons (N°. 15932/1967) was found here with a driving axle on each of its bogies (1A’A1’). It is in the process of being converted into a railbus for the Massawa commuter service. A further three four-wheel goods wagons have been converted into open passenger carriages, in addition to the three already in use at Massawa. The second FIAT “Littorina”, N°. 7, is also at the workshops in the process of being rebuilt, after some spare parts were obtained from scrapped FIAT trucks, together with converted Ural truck No. 2, which has received a new body after having been involved in an accident last year. The historical significance of the small four-wheeled FIAT type TL150 diesel loco (ex-Somalia), derelict at Mai Atal, has also been recognized, and there have been thoughts to put a diesel engine back into it and restore it.

The small shed at Ghinda has been closed and all locomotives and passenger carriages are now based at Asmara.

ER has started a formal training program on steam locomotives for its younger employees.

ER is still planning to extend the line to Keren and beyond. At Biscia, the end of the line from 1932 to 1942 (31 km beyond Agordat), a Canadian company is planning to mine for gold and has asked the railway if it could transport the bagged ore to Massawa for onward shipment. Suitable diesel locos are being sought by the Project Coordinator of ER (the Indian YDM-4 and Chinese DFH-21 were mentioned to him, but further suggestions are welcome), as the two Krupps are said to be life-expired (their fuel consumption was said to amount to 5 litres per km) and no replacement engines could be found for them. Two bogie flat wagons have had their frames extended in length at Asmara Workshops to enable them to carry 40-foot containers, and test runs have shown that there is enough clearance in the tunnels between Massawa and Asmara.

The track at the ‘Expo Park’ (trade fair), where 202.004 run in summer 2006 with three open coaches, has been partly dismantled to build a canal.

Rolling Stock 03/2009:
Steam locomotives:
202.002 ASM serviceable at loco shed;
202.004 ASM stored at workshops, awaiting repairs;
202.008 ASM stored at workshops, awaiting repairs;
202.009 ASM derelict at loco shed;
202.010 ASM under repair at loco shed (without axles);
202.011 ASM derelict at loco shed;
440.008 ASM serviceable at loco shed;
442.54 ASM serviceable at loco shed;
442.55 ASM serviceable at loco shed;
442.56 ASM under restoration at loco shed (frames) and workshops (boiler);
442.59 ASM serviceable at loco shed.

Diesel locomotives & railcars:
25D ASM stored at diesel depot;
27D ASM serviceable at diesel depot;
FIAT TL150 Mai Atal derelict ;
Drewry 2075 Otumlo/Amaterei awaiting repairs (without middle axle);
Drewry 2079 Otumlo/Amaterei serviceable for Massawa commuter service;
Drewry 2083 not seen (formerly frames and cab derelict at Asmara);
“Littorinella” N°. 2 ASM serviceable at diesel depot;
“Littorina” N. 2 ASM serviceable at diesel depot;
“Littorina” N°. 7 ASM under repair at workshops;
“Ural” n°. 1 ASM serviceable at diesel depot;
“Ural” n°. 2 ASM under repair at workshops/serviceable;
railbus ASM under construction at workshops;
MotoGuzzi motocar ASM stored at diesel depot;
Road-rail crane ASM stored;
Road-rail tamper Nefasit stored.

Passenger carriages:
Carriages n°s. 01 – 04 ASM serviceable;
Carriage n°. 05 ASM awaiting repairs at workshops (collision damage);
Bar car n°. 06 ASM (repainted in brown);
Composite car CD 61 ASM derelict (bodies only);
Baggage cars DF 862/2 ASM derelict (bodies only);
3 x 4-wheel open coaches Otumlo/Amaterei, serviceable for Massawa commuter service;
3 x 4-wheel open coaches ASM (newly converted).

Rail cranes:
GRU 8.000 ASM derelict at workshops ;
GRU.8.001 ASM serviceable at workshops;
GRU 8.002 MSW derelict.

Asmara – Keren & Beyond :

On March 17/18, the dismantled part of the railway was explored from Asmara beyond Keren up to Hagaz (Agat), five stations short of Agordat (km 188.3 from Asmara). On the first day we followed the track bed by Land Cruiser to Keren. On the second day we walked from the outskirts of Keren along the line to the first station of Asciadira and further beyond the last tunnel (n°. 4), from where we drove on to the stations of Hummed and Hagaz. The line between Zazzega and Halib Mentel has been cleared and most salvageable rails retrieved. Beyond Keren, most of the rails are still in place, although the sleepers have mostly been stolen/taken away.

Asmara (km 0, alt. 2342 m.)

Tzada Cristian (km 9.56, alt. 2291.6 m.)
Ruined station building.

Zazzega (km 19.16, alt. 2217 m.)
Foundations of station building, water column, large steel water tank, ruined worker’s houses. After this station, the line leaves the high plateau on which Asmara is situated and makes a descent by following some large curves.

Four one-arched bridges (10 meter arches) and tunnel n°. 30 (94.8 meters) are found in this section.

Dem Sebai (km 30.9, alt. 1987.5 m.)
Abandoned station building, passenger platform, two water towers. This station is scenically located in a narrow valley, overlooking the river. It is closely followed by two one-arched bridges (10 meters).

One-arched bridge (10 meters).

Andenna (km 38.93, alt. 1906.8 m.)
Ruined station building (bullet holes), passenger platform.

Tunnel n°. 31 (107 meters).

Small one-arched bridge.

Abrascico (km 47.3, alt. 1783 m.)
Station building (locked, in use as store or housing), passenger platform, concrete water tank, steel water tank supports, water pumping station building. This was the major station between Asmara and Keren. Nowadays, tomatoes are planted here seasonally which are taken to Asmara or Keren by using the railway track-bed, as there are no roads into the area.

Small one-arched bridge (rebuilt).

Two-arched bridge (10+5 meters, rebuilt) on the Bacra Rabai torrent.

Amba Derho (km 58.73, alt. 1687.5 m.)
Ruined station building (bullet holes), passenger platform, concrete water tank.

Tunnel n°. 32 (91 meters) at km. 64.

Tunnel n°. 33 (64 meters).

Furkutu (km 68.135, alt. 1635 m.)
Ruined station building, passenger platform, goods ramp, concrete water tank. Water tank wagon n°. L 5.20X (square tank). The entrance to the station is marked by two large boulders, one on each side of the track. The picture of a “Littorina” on an old postcard was taken here.

Elabered (km 77.74, alt. 1468 m.)
Ruined station building, passenger platform, goods ramp, concrete water tank. Water tank wagon n°. 50.004 (square tank). Elabered is the site of a large irrigated agricultural estate established by an Italian, Fratelli de Nadai, in 1958. Before the War for Independence, part of its production (mainly citrus fruits and tomatoes) was exported to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. It was also the site of a major battle between the EPFL and the Ethiopian troops in 1977.

Shortly behind the village a river is crossed on a one-arched bridge (10 meters). Beside it stands the ruined remains of a water pumping station.

We followed the line for some distance before reaching a small destroyed bridge, from where we had to return to Elabered to join the main road to Keren. As a result, tunnel n°. 34 (66 meters) and two bridges, a two-arched and a one-arched, were not seen.

The road crossed the railway at a paved-over crossing, before reaching…

Halib Mentel (km 92.338, alt. 1422.58 m.)
Station building (locked), passenger platform. Three wagon frames (including two of tank wagons, one square and one round).

Beyond the station, the Asmara-Keren highway was again crossed by the railway at a paved-over crossing, followed by a one-arched bridge (10 meters).

Keren-Tantarua – Villagio Indegeno (km 102)
Station building (in use as housing). This station, located just beyond the entrance to the city, served the indigenous village (Italy instated a system of apartheid in its colonial possessions from 1922 to 1941).

Just before Keren, a three-arched bridge (3 x 10 meters) on the Ciut-Ciufit torrent is followed by a small one-arched bridge over a street.

Keren (formerly Cheren, km 104.13, alt. 1390 m.)
Although all of the tracks have been lifted, most of the features at the large station of Keren survive to this day. The two-storey station building is used as a bus station, from where buses go east (Asmara), west (Agordat, Barentu and Tessenei) and north (Afabet and Nakfa). Inside the building is a café, and the large yard in front of it is used as a bus parking.

On the Asmara side of the station is the former two-stall loco shed, now occupied by the “Keren Metal, Wood & Cements Works P.L. Co.”, but appeared out of use. Tracks can still be seen entering the building. The iron water tank in front is used as the company’s signboard. Also in front of the shed is a loading platform (probably the coal stage). Behind it is a turntable.

On the Agordat of the station is the goods shed (with one track running through it), together with a platform, a wagon scale and loading gauge. Beyond it is another two-stall loco or carriage shed. This part of the station seems to be out of use. At the end of the station the road to Agordat crosses the tracks (2 + 2) on an overhead bridge.

Beyond Keren, the line clings to the side of the mountain, high above the valley which the road follows, on its way to Hummed station, from where it has a much lower gradient all the way to Agordat. As this section has not been cleared, we had to leave the Land Cruisers and walk along.

Tunnels n°. 1 and n°. 2 (36.4 and 85.4 meters) were followed by a ruined masonry water tank. These tunnels were a key to the British victory in the Battle of Keren (WWII), in March of 1941. As the road had been made impassable, during the final assault it is through these tunnels that two British detachments (2nd Highland Light Infantry & 4th Bn./10th Baluch Regiment) were able to cross behind the Italian defenses by surprise on March 25, allowing the road to be cleared. Although the tunnels had been set with explosives (the holes can still be seen), they had not been blown up by the Italians.

Further on came tunnel n°. 3 (129.15 meters), a four-arched bridge (4 x 10 meters) and the six-arched Asciadira viaduct (6 x 10 meters) at km 114. It is from this viaduct that the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) derailed two “Littorinas” and a passenger train headed by a Krupp diesel locomotive in October 1970 during the struggle for independence, after having removed the passengers and crews at Asciadira station, see: Asciadira (3).JPG (link broken by 29th October 2017, but domain active). A dent could be found on the side of the viaduct.

Asciadira (km 115.135, alt. 1203.5 m.)
Ruined station building, passenger platform, ruined conical masonry and concrete worker’s house (built in the same pattern as the traditional houses of the area). Frame of four-wheel baggage carriage DT 904 (Officine di Casaralta S.A., Bologna, 1933, kg. 7260) and water tank wagon n°. 5.003 (round tank, Carminati & Toselli, 1912).

Shortly beyond the station is a four-arched bridge (4 x 10 meters), followed by tunnel N°. 4 (236 meters), the last tunnel of line. After exiting the tunnel, we made it down into the valley, from where the Land Cruisers took us to:

Hummed (km 128.126, alt. 935 m.)
Ruined station building, masonry water tank, iron water tank masonry supports and water column (dismantled). Open wagon n°. L.4.232 (Officine Meccaniche de Pinerolo, 1914) and the frame of a water tank wagon (round tank, Carminatti & Toselli, 1912). Also present here was the frame (without wheels) of a narrow gauge (600mm ?) wagon.

The station is flanked on both sides by three-arched bridges (3 x 10 meters).

Hagaz (ex Agat, km 135.69, alt. 863.7 m.)
Restored station building and concrete water tank (in use by Ministry of Agriculture), water column. Open Wagons L 40.616 and L.40.622, water tank wagon frame (round tank).

The subsequent stations of Darotai (km 144.882, alt. 794.6 m.), Aderde (ex Mai Adarte, km 153.81, alt. 750 m.), Umfutat (km 167.01, alt. 668.5 m.), Carobel (178.8, alt. 677 m.) and Agordat (km 188.8, alt. 606 m.) are all located in Gash-Barka province, which was not open for tourists at the time of our visit and could not be explored.

Of great interest in this section are a number of large bridges: a five-arched bridge (5 x 10 meters) on Darotai torrent between Hagaz and Darotai, a three-arched concrete bridge (3 x 12.86 meters) on Boco Baraka torrent between Darotai and Mai Adarte, a three-span metal girder bridge (3 x 45 meters) on Carobel torrent just beyond Carobel station, a three-span metal girder bridge (2 x 45 + 1 x 23 meters) on Barca torrent and a three-arched bridge (3 x 12 meters) on Penlai torrent between Carobel and Agordat.

Agordat station (two-storey building), formerly used by the military, has a number of derelict goods wagons as well as a burnt-out passenger carriage lying around.

Rob Dickinson