Metro rail gets off the ground: financing and regulation have held back mass transit systems in Africa.

Author:Mulligan, Gabriella
Position:Sector Focus: Urban Infrastructure

Since the start of the year, commuters trapped in Addis Ababa's traffic gridlock have seen passenger trains humming along raised lines above the city--a glimpse of a future outside of the endless traffic jams.

Construction of the city's 5475m metro began in 2012. The testing phase is now under way, and the passenger launch is set for May. Its two lines run for a total of 32km, with underground and overground sections, 39 stations, and two operators--the Ethiopian Railways Corporation and Shenzhen Metro. It is expected to carry 60,000 passengers a day, and even that may not be enough to keep up with demand.

The metro is the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa outside of South Africa--although others are still in the planning stage. Nigeria's commercial capital of Lagos intends to build 57km of lines; in Kenya, the government's Vision 2030 includes plans to build an integrated 167km road and rail transport system linking the capital Nairobi's 3.4m people with neighbouring towns.

Light rail is on the agenda in Ghana too, but the long-planned $i.5bn monorail project for Accra is yet to approach fruition.

Dr Nigel Harris, managing director of leading rail experts the Railway Consultancy, cautions that metro rail projects are not always economically viable and need to meet a tipping point before the investment becomes worthwhile. Harris defines...

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