The Eritrean Railway is the only railway system in Eritrea. It was constructed between 1887 and 1932 by the Kingdom of Italyfor the Italian Eritrea, colony and connected the port of Massawa with Bishia near the Sudan border.
The line was essentially destroyed by warfare in subsequent decades, but has been rebuilt between Massawa and Asmara. Vintage equipment is still used on this line.
Construction began from the Red Sea port city of Massawa in 1887, heading towards the capital city of Asmara. The "Decauville" railway was the first built, from Massaua to Saati, just 27 km. 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 Bishia in 1932, for a total length of 280 km (174 mi). Bishia (Biscia in Italian) proved to be the end, even though the builders had ambitions of reaching the Sudan Railways line. 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 right-of-way allowed by a narrow gauge railway, the line required 65 bridges (including a fourteen-arch viaduct crossing the Obel River) and 39 tunnels, the longest being 320 m (1,050 ft). Even so, there were still grades of more than 3%. The highest point on the railway is just east of Asmara at 2,394 m (7,854 ft) above sea level.
The construction of the railway was considered worldwide as a renowned achievement of the first half of the twentieth century. The railway was reasonably busy for such a small line; in 1935, carrying large quantities of 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 traffic away from the railway.
Until 1941, the railway was Italian controlled, but the fortunes of war allowed the British to take control. After 1942 the railway (damaged during the British occupation and by Italian guerrillas) was abandoned from Agordat to Biscia.
In 1942 the British moved some diesel locomotives and materials to Eritrea when they dismantled the Railway Mogadiscio-Villabruzzi of Italian Somalia. In 1944 the British (as a war compensation) dismantled the Italian-built Asmara-Massawa Cablewaythat supplemented the railway as a means of transportation inland; the cableway equipment was sent south to Britain's colonyKenya.
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 in the 1970s the railway fell 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, and 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 steel ties.
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 Krupp-built 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.
The line has been restored from Massawa all the way through to Asmara. Charter trains for tourists and regular train services exist in certain areas where there is demand.
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