In a faraway land, a reminder of Union Pacific
FREDERICK C. GAMST*
crossing the scorchingcoastal desert, the wheezing Mallet belches thick
black smoke as it leans into the 3.5 per cent grade on its 7700-foot ascent
to the railroad terminal that beckons from the distant cool and verdant
high plateau. Over an adjacent road, a caravan of heavily laden camels
also begins to wind up the escarpment, following a tradition begun thousands
of years before the railroad came to this remote land. Where else in the
world can we be but Ethiopia, a nation with a history of 3000 years of
civilization and a scenic wonderland as yet undiscovered by many tourists.
WHILE conducting anthropological field research in central Ethiopia, I took some time to investigate the single-track, 95-centimeter-gauge (3 feet l 3/8 inches) Imperial Ethiopian Government Railroad, now a department of the province of Eritrea. On a sunny but cold morning in Asmara, the rail center on the high plateau, Kenyazmach Yemane Mulate, administrator and general manager of the IEGRR, arranged for me to inspect the facilities and to gather information about the railroad. Afterward, while I stepped outside to warm myself in a sunlit part of the busy yard and to watch an engineman poke his long-nozzled oilcan around the rods of his hissing yard goat. I contemplated the role this railroad was playing in the development of Ethiopia.
Railroads are one of the earliest and most basic of the forms of industrialization now encircling the globe. Industrialization is modernizing and homogenizing the approximately 5000 ethnic groups of the world who did not participate in the earlier 19th century industrialization of Euro-America and Japan. Ethiopia's age-old civilization, based upon animal power and agriculture, includes more than 70 ethnic groups, all being drawn into a developmental transformation of their various traditional ways of life. The IEGRR, one of the largest and most important of Ethiopia's industries, is a leading force in this modernization. IEGRR is important because it efficiently distributes goods, links peoples with one another in this ethnically diverse land, and connects peasants and herders with urban centers of modernization.
Of even greater importance for ultimate national development is the education of Ethiopians in the methods of industrialism and progress by the IEGRR as it instructs them in the way to run a railroad. In short, IEGRR is a portal from which the ways of the developed world first may be perceived and then entered upon. Men learn to operate, maintain, and rebuild the vast array of equipment and fixed plant found on a railroad, while still others acquire the many clerical and managemental skills needed in railroading. In turn, the railroaders' salaries percolate into a national economy which greatly needs workers who receive money, rather than agricultural products, for their labor. Just as the wages and occupational skills of the railroaders boost the economy, the progressive personnel policies of management serve as models of what the tradition-bound population can expect as they participate in their nation's development. A hospitaliza-tion plan, as well as disability and-death benefits, is among the enlightened measures of industrial society that IEGRR employees count as kinds of security not found in the traditional ways of life.
The IEGRR is one of two railroads in the realm of Haile Selassie I, King of Kings of Ethiopia. (The other line is the meter-gauge Chemin de Fer Franco-Ethiopien linking the French colonial port of Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden with Addis Ababa [New Flower], the Ethiopian capital lying 485 rail-miles to the west and 8000 feet above sea level. This line is now being extended approximately 200 miles into the southern interior of the country.) In 1887, when the Italians began their colonization of northern Ethiopia, which lasted until 1941, they also began a railroad linking the island seaport of Massawa on the coast with the Ethiopian high plateau. Military defeats of the Italians by Ethiopian forces in 1887 and in 1896 were among the reasons why only 16V2 miles of railroad (eventually to become the IEGRR) was completed by 1901. In another 10 years, the Italian-built line reached the plateau at what is now the city of Asmara (containing the operating offices, shops, and major yard). In the 1920's, the railroad was extended across the highlands to Agordat and finally terminated at Bis-cia. These latter two towns are located in a semi-arid stretch of land west of the highland and have been inhabited by herders for the past 4000 years. Many of the locomotives and other equipment, and the Agordat-Biscia section of rails and ties, were taken by the British in the 1940's for use against the Axis powers in the Libyan campaign. The British administered Eritrea and the railroad from 1941 to 1952, when the territory, with the railroad, was returned to Ethiopia. There are now plans to extend the IEGRR through Biscia to a terminus at Tessenei, linking it with the Sudan Railways, a 3-foot 6-inch gauge line. Long-range plans call for a southeastward extension of the IEGRR of over 200 miles from Tessenei to the interior of the north-central part of the plateau, including linkage with Gondar, the historic former capital of Ethiopia containing numerous castles and churches, and with Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile.
AN 0-4-4-0T piloting six gondolas loaded with coils of wire
climbs the 3.5 per cent grade into Asmara. A highway is in the background.
Traversing the 190 miles of the IEGRR, one encounters 39 tunnels, 65 bridges and viaducts (some across huge rivers), and about 1500 culverts along a roadbed maintained by the Ethiopians at a level almost unknown under past management. The leaders of Fascist Italy, considering themselves the heirs of the Roman Empire, were enamored with road building. Hence, Mussolini's forces depended heavily upon highway transport, allowing the railroad to succumb to deferred maintenance. Outer rails on curves were allowed to wear to less than one half their original weight, ties deteriorated to the point of becoming ornaments between the rails, and joint bars corroded. In addition, the Italians paralleled the Asmara-Massawa line with a teleferica, – an aerial cablevay mounted on steel towers – which today is the only remnant of this system. Freight was transported in gondolas suspended from one of a pair of moving cables – one eastbound, the other westbound. Perhaps the greatest detriment to the railroad was the failure of the Italians to bring in efficient motive power. A British administrator of the railroad once remarked that "a properly designed Garratt should pull at least twice the load" of the "toy engines" used by the Italians. I wonder, though, did the Englishman expect Mussolini to equip his colonial adventures from British workshops? In any event, the British did not .help matters during their tenure; they sent many of the best Italian locomotives to Libya.
ITALIAN-BUILT steam power still holds sway over the IEGRR. Eventually the steam engines will be retired because of their age and because coal must be imported, often from the United States. Tentative plans were made in 1944 to convert the engines to oil burners, but this did not materialize. In any event, oil also must be imported.
NO. 440.029 is one of 10 0-4-4-OT Mallets used between Massawa and Asmara.
Diesels rule the western part of the IEGRR.
Ten 0-4-4-0T compound Mallets, some sporting Walschaerts valve gear, still pick their way through the switch points of the yard on the innermost of the two islands constituting the port city of Massawa. Trailing acrid exhaust, the compounds rumble their freight cars across a causeway to the mainland, beginning transit of an arid region where temperatures of 130 degrees Fahrenheit are common. One ton of coal is carried behind the cab, and 600 gallons of water is contained in rectangular tanks alongside the boiler. Most Mallets have a "boiler pressure of 180 pounds, and when their 37-inch drivers are fully loaded to 49 metric tons, the Mallets nominally exert 25,000 pounds of tractive effort at sea level. Although they are rated at 300 tons over the tightly winding 3.5 per cent gradient, the Mallets customarily ascend to Asmara with only six cars, each of 12-ton capacity.
Two ages contrast at Ela Bared as diesel-hydraulic TV 84
pauses on well-maintained trackage flanking grass huts.
The roar of diesels is not new to the IEGRR. A diesel-electric
of A-A arrangement built by Brown Boveri of Milan in 1935 is still on the
property as a generator car. More important to the railroad are its eight
littorinas, Fiat diesel-mechanical railcars. These double-ended
coaches were providing first-class passenger service in Ethiopia long before
the Budd railcars were running in the United States. Today littorinas,
powered by two 120 h.p. diesel engines on a B-B arrangement, provide two
or three classes of service all along the line. Growling uphill from exotic
Massawa to cosmopolitan Asmara in 4 hours, or in less than half the time
of a standard passenger train, they provide the traveler with scenery ranging
from dhows raising their sails in the sparkling blue Massawa harbor, to
oases and herds of gazelle in the yellow-brown coastal desert, to neatly
arranged farming towns tucked among the hairpin curves on the thrilling
ascent to the green plateau. At times, heavy fog hovers over the desert
and collects against the escarpment of the plateau, bringing some relief
from the tropical sun.
Of greater economic importance to the railroad are the four 650 h.p. diesel-hydraulics built by Krupp; each of these weighs 100 tons on a B-B arrangement. Unlike the Mallets, they are used in passenger and mixed service. The diesels support all service west of Asmara not protected by the littormas.
A PASSENGER-TRAIN TRIP to Agordat
is a pleasurable way of inspecting the western end of the line. Led by
an accelerating diesel-hydraulic, TV 83 with six bright-green wooden coaches
glides westbound out of the Asmara station. After passing through the sprawling
city, the train runs across the colorful rolling plateau on the way to
Keren. Gazing out of the window, we see peasants driving their heavily
burdened donkeys to markets located in some of the villages where the train
stops. At Ambaderho TV 83 takes the siding for eastbound AT 82, a littorina;
and just before reaching Keren, in an area becoming increasingly arid,
we meet TV 84, our eastbound opposite number. Pull-. ing into Keren station,
a large two-story concrete structure, we find TM 106 —10 freight cars behind
a murmuring diesel respectfully waiting in the three-track yard for us
to clear the high iron. Ground storage of coal and a water spout, as well
as an enginehouse, are reminders that the western line is still potentially
After the passengers and baggage are on board, TV 83 eases out of town behind the German-built die-sel, past plantations of tomatoes and sisal, into the yellowish steppe, across several wide rivers, and past many stark volcanic peaks. The end of the line, Agordat, has the same layout and preparation for steam as does Keren. Today, there are only two freight cars in the yard as we pull up to the station, a handsome structure in an Arabian style of architecture. The littorma, which preceded us to Agordat on schedule AT 81, rests in the carbarn in preparation for its return trip tomorrow morning as AT 82. On the way to our hotel, with spartan accommodations ($1.60 per couple per night) but with very good food ($2 for a sumptuous multicourse Continental dinner for two), we pass some competition — a caravanserai accommodating for the night a newly arrived caravan of camels. Through the main streets of town, a double-bottomed truck follows a new bus past the picturesque mosque; both vehicles are bound for Keren.
SEVEN 0-4-0T yard engines protect
the Asmara and Massawa yards. These 21-ton locomotives, nominally exerting
12,000 pounds of tractive effort, are constantly switching the dock-side
on the outer island of Massawa, where from one to four freighters may have
arrived from anyplace in the world. Ethiopian crews, switching day and
night, seven days a week, are quite proficient. Trainmen give stop, go-ahead,
and move-back signals with a red flag or by hand, in the same manner as
in the States. In switching, the dockside 0-4-0T puffs into its cut of
cars and then slows as the engineman uses power brakes or the reverse lever.
The kicked cars are brought to a halt by a trainman at the hand brake.
In this way, trains from the plateau are broken up and trains destined
for the high country are assembled.
Ton-miles from Massawa harbor up to the city of Asmara are generally twice the amount handled on the downgrade trips. By rail, manufactured goods for development and consumption come into Ethiopia; and cereals, legumes, oil seeds, hides, and meat leave Ethiopia. As Ethiopia embarked upon the path to modernization, business on the IEGRR picked up from 1958 to 1962, and 1963-1964 saw a further upsurge in business to the point where an enthusiastic clerk said, "It can now be considered good." How the expansion of the railroad will be affected by the closing of the Suez Canal in 1967 remains to be seen.
Spirit and pride in work, in both the operating and mechanical departments,
is high among the railroaders who, except for a few, are now all Ethiopians.
Working on the IEGRR is particularly exacting, since all rebuilding and
repairs are done without aid from Europe. In the Asmara shops, a steam
engine's whistle is sometimes jacked up and the entire locomotive is rebuilt
The Asmara carshops work steel carbodies, frames, and trucks. A large and modern machine shop fabricates and renews parts from pins to axles as needed. In the blacksmith shop, engine frames, boilers, and fireboxes are rebuilt with the aid of a large pneumatic hammer. The foundry turns out bearings, wheels, brake shoes, and machine parts; and the boiler-tube shop supports the boiler repairs. The axle and the spring shops rehabilitate or replace these vital components with IEGRR fabrications. At the time of my visit, the carpentry shop was completely reconstructing a littorma destroyed by fire; additionally it renews roofs and floors of freight cars. Huge logs are stored near this shop, whose machinery cuts them into the needed beams and planks. A general maintenance shop does lighter repairs.
The sooty enginehouse has two long stalls and an outside track connected by a turntable. Out in front is a very small stationary boiler taken from the first engine on the line. On this day, by chance, six of the road engines were being inspected and groomed for service. The littormas and diesel locomotives are readied in the barn across from the enginehouse. Some gauges and electrical components for the Krupp locomotives are virtually the only items not manufactured in the IEGRR Asmara shops, whose capabilities no longer can be matched by many or most of the major American rail centers.
DISPATCHING on the IEGRR is by timetable and telephoned
train orders, originating with the dispatcher at Asmara. All arrivals and
departures are recorded in train register books. Also noted are delays,
"suppressed" schedules (annulments), and the call- i ing of conditional
trains (scheduled in the timetable and classed between i regular and extra
trains). Train or- 1 ders, called "service phonograms," are recorded
by number and transmitted over two telephone lines, one leading to Massawa
and one to Agordat. . Each orifice in the dial of the telephone rings a
specific station. Orders are written and given in Italian, since most employees
are bilinguals and many are polyglots who speak Italian, English, and some
French and Arabic, along with their native Amharic or Tegrenya. A typical
order, instructing the engineman and the trainman in the latest information
beyond their timetable, directs the littorma on schedule AT 1 to meet a
conditional train. On that day, 23 of the 27 regular and conditional trains
in the timetable had been called. The dispatcher also regulates the supply
of cars, recording their daily disposition in a ledger and on a blackboard.
With this information, he ensures a smooth flow of loads and empties and
is able to predict the makeup of the next day's trains and the required
number of engines. Just as Union Pacific employees on the Los Angeles &
Salt Lake line claim of their road, IEGRR employees say, "This is a dispatcher's
Most of the over 500 freight cars are two-axle gondolas, box cars, and flat cars upgraded by means of heavier springs from a capacity of 10 tons to 12 tons. There are, in addition, a few tank cars for water service and a number of 21-ton cars supported by two double-axle trucks. Twenty wooden coaches, whose green exteriors are well maintained, round out the roster of rolling stock on IEGRR, a property reminiscent in many ways of the small but resourceful railroads of bygone years in the United States.
THE IEGRR looks forward to continued growth and
further contribution to the development of Ethiopia, despite competition
from truckers. Its profitable operation and full potential will be realized
only after it can tap freight traffic from Sudan and from the central part
of the high plateau, presumably with more powerful diesel locomotives.
An eventual linking with the Chemin de Fer Franco-Ethiopien, despite the
5-centimeter difference in gauge, literally will gird this ethnically diverse
nation with bands of steel, facilitating efficient interprovincial trade
|MOTIVE POWER SINCE1920|
©1969, TRAINS Magazine. Used with permission.
Please note: I have taken the liberty to adjust this to full width HTML. The original article with over four pages in three columns each. I have done my best with the rest for direct conversion of the article.
* About the Author: The following appeared in David P. Morgan's Editorial in the same issue:
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