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The Eritrean Railway (Ferrovie Eritree)

The African nation of Eritrea, on the Red Sea coast and stuck between Sudan and Ethiopia, and independent from the latter since 1993, has but a single railway line. Narrow gauge, anachronistic, and being slowly rebuilt after the devastation wreaked on the nation during its long war of independence, that it has survived at all is a marvel.

And a marvel is what it is; a railway still running in the twenty-first century whose newest equipment is nearly fifty years old and most of whose equipment predates World War II, where you can ride on 1930s Italian-built 'Littorina' railcars and behind 1930s-vintage Mallet steam locomotives as they climb over a hundred kilometers of the most tortuous mountain railways anywhere. And even more fascinatingly - while tourism is certainly a part of why the railway still survives and is being restored, it's not all of it. The intention is for this to be a working system, first and foremost.


Eritrea was an Italian colony, and its railway was thus built by Italian engineers to Italian standards, using equipment bought from Italy. The gauge chosen was the Italian standard narrow gauge measurement of 950mm, this to enable the purchase of off-the-shelf and second-hand equipment from Italy. The 950mm gauge is a historical artifact due, it is said, to it being approximately three Italian feet in their pre-Metric measurements, and is thus 50mm narrower than the European standard narrow gauge measurement of 1 metre.

Construction began from the Red Sea port city of Massawa in 1887, heading towards the capital city of Asmara. Progress was slow, thanks to the long climb up the mountains to the high plateau of inland Eritrea, and the substantial civil engineering works required; the line reached Asmara in 1911. It was extended to Keren in 1922, Agat in 1925, Agordat in 1928, and finally Bascia in 1932, for a total length of 280km (174 miles). Bascia proved to be the end, even though the builders had ambitions of reaching the Sudan Railway at Tessenai; Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia led to resources being diverted elsewhere, including the upgrading of the line from Massawa to Asmara to handle more traffic.

Building the line from Massawa to Asmara was a significant undertaking. Even with the tighter turns and narrower way needed by a narrow gauge railway, the line required 65 bridges (including a fourteen-arch viaduct crossing the Obel River) and 30 tunnels, the longest being 320m (.2 mile). Even with such works, the gradients were 3% or worse. The highest point on the railway is just east of Asmara at 2394m (7856 feet) above sea level.

In Operation

The railway was reasonably busy for such a small line; in 1935, carrying much supplies for the Italian war effort in Ethiopia, the line saw 30 trains daily, while by 1965 the line was carrying nearly half a million passengers a year as well as 200,000 tons of freight. Things went downhill progressively from there. Improvements to the road from Massawa to Asmara and to the trucks and buses that used it began to take away traffic from the railway.

Until 1941, the railway was Italian controlled, but the fortunes of war allowed the British to take control in 1941. It was at this time that the railway was abandoned from Agordat to Bascia. In 1944 the British dismantled the Italian-built ropeway that supplemented the railway as a means of transportation inland.

In 1953 Eritrea was joined to Ethiopia in federation as the British pulled out, giving Ethiopia a coastline, but starting off 40 years of unrest and eventually war.

The 1950s and 1960s were successful years for the railway, but the 1970s saw the railway fall more and more out of use as the unrest intensified, and in 1975 the railway was destroyed by the ruling Derg regime in Ethiopia. Much of the infrastructure was destroyed during the following years of war, as both sides used materials salvaged from the railway for fortification and other purposes.


Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia in 1993, and in 1994 the Eritrean president declared that rebuilding the railway was a priority for the new nation. During the war years a spirit of self reliance had been built up, and the Eritreans refused foreign loans and expensive rework. Instead, the Eritreans decided, they would rebuild what they had left with their own efforts. Rebuilding the line started, some work going into rebuilding the workshops and station in Asmara while others set to reconstructing the Massawa end. Renovation of the main line began from Massawa westbound, recovering rails and ties (the latter steel; wood does not last in this climate). The last information I have says that the vast majority of the line has been rebuilt between the capital and the coast, and it may indeed be finished by now. Work has gone slowly because of the continuing border war with Ethiopia.

At the same time, restoration began on the remaining locomotives and rolling stock remaining after the conflict. Eleven steam locomotives survived, and at least six have been rebuilt to working order. In addition, several 1930s vintage Fiat 'Littorina' railcars survive and have been made operational, as well as two 1957-built Krupp Bo-Bo diesels (the line's newest locomotives) and one of three surviving Drewry shunters, brought to the railway by the British during the war years. Finally, several road trucks have been converted to run on rail wheels. Much freight stock and a number of passenger cars also survive.

Enough of the line has been restored to run local commuter services in Massawa and to provide tourist services, but any use of the system for serious transportation must await completion of the line's renovation to Asmara. In addition, while the surviving equipment is sufficient for such a limited service, it's going to be essential to purchase or build more if the line's ever going to be usable for serious transportation. A small fleet of more modern railcars could provide more serious competition to the current bus services. The surviving freightcars include a number of larger boxcars suitable for a limited freight service, but more, and a few powerful locomotives to haul them, would be most useful. I am not sure if the loading gauge of the railway would permit the passage of ISO standard containers; if not, such an upgrade would be worth considering, albeit highly expensive.

Was it wise to keep and restore the existing narrow gauge system rather than build a new railway? Only time will tell, but it's quite possible the Eritreans are right that the last thing they need is more debt. The current Eritrean Railway is at least one that can be maintained and run cheaply and with existing, local talent.


Steam Locomotives

Three classes of steam locomotive still exist; one design of 0-4-0 shunter and two designs of 0-4-4-0 Mallet for line service.

202 Series

These small 0-4-0 tank engines were and are the standard shunter locomotives of the system, built between 1927 and 1937 by the firm of Breda in Milan. They have short side tanks, a rear coal bunker, and a unified, oval dome containing the steam dome inside a larger sand dome - this arrangement, popular worldwide in nations that favored the sand dome, helped both to insulate the steam dome and to keep the sand dry with the warmth. Large, prominent builder's plates adorn the domes. They utilise Walschaerts valve gear with piston valves and superheating, and are painted in the traditional European style of red below the running board, including frames and wheels, and black above, including boiler, cab, tanks etc. The purpose of the red paint is to make cracks and breakages in the locomotive's important running gear more obvious.

Six of these useful little engines still survive, of which two were in running order and four in storage awaiting restoration.

440 Series

One of these early Mallet locomotives, which is a true Mallet and thus a compound, still exists in storage at the Asmara workshops. It was a 1915 product of Ansaldo in Genova.

442 Series

These later, and much larger, compound Mallet locomotives were built by Ansaldo in Genova in 1938 to largely replace the earlier types, both the 440 Series and the unsuccessful 441 Series, which were simple locomotives (i.e. non-compound) and found liable to run out of steam on the heavy grades of the line. Four of them are still in existence of which three are in running order. These are the prime main-line steam locomotives of the railway, and are in high demand for tourist services. Two of them, double headed, are required to scale the steepest grades with a train of any length. Like the other locomotives they are tank engines with large side tanks and a rear coal bunker, under cover of the cab roof in this design. No dainty little locomotives, these are quite hefty and brawny machines, as required by the tough demands of the terrain.

Diesel Locomotives

The railway still possesses five diesel locomotives, which are in the process of being returned to working order.

Krupp Bo-Bo Roadswitchers

The railway purchased two Krupp-built Bo-Bo roadswitchers of typical German offset-cab design in 1957, the newest motive power owned by the system and the only purchased after the World War II. They are both still in working order and when the line's replacement is complete it is intended to use them for hauling freight. They are painted in a creamy white with brown frames and trucks.

Drewry Shunters

Three Drewry built shunters are owned by the railway, and were brought to Eritrea by the British after their takeover in 1941. They were previously in service in the Sudan and were of a narrower gauge there; they were regauged to the railway's 950mm gauge by turning them from an outside framed to an inside framed layout. Two are 0-6-0s and one is an 0-4-0; one of each is working while the third is under repair. They are painted in the same scheme as the Krupp units, and all the photographs I've seen show that they are lacking their bonnet sides and the engines are exposed.


Three Fiat-built 'Littorina' railcars survived the civil war and two are in working order. They're attractive looking, rounded things, very Art Deco in style, with large Fiat radiators on the front. The bodies are painted in creamy white with grey underneath and roofs with red 'bumpers' on the ends and a red stripe seperating the body color from the grey below, which looks quite attractive. They're intended for tourist service; new vehicles will be built or bought for regular passenger service.

In addition, one 4-wheel railcar built by Brown Boveri exists out of service in the Asmara shops, which was apparently being used as a mobile generator car before the civil war.

Rail Trucks

A number of Russian-built light trucks have been converted to run on rail wheels and are being used in the railway's reconstruction

Passenger Cars

A number of passenger cars, all mounted on two four-wheel trucks, survive. They are fitted with wooden seats and have a platform at each end, one of which is for the brakeman - there are no continous train brakes on the railway, and braking is either done with the locomotive's brakes or by manually applying the brakes on each car. They are now painted in an attractive livery of white with pale blue in a stripe above the windows and at the bottom of the bodywork.

Freight Cars

Large numbers of abandoned freight cars sit on sidings near Asmara, and they are slowly being restored. Priority is being given to the 8-wheel (2 x 4-wheel truck) boxcars and flatcars, but a large number of 4-wheel cars still exist too.

Sources include Ralph Reinhold's fascinating, if disorganised, site at http://www.trainweb.org/eritrean/ and pretty much everything I can find anywhere. I've made animated drawings of much of the railway's equipment for the Railway 32 Screensaver and made them available at http://byz.org/~morven/Railway32/.

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