The history of Eritrea’s railway began in the 19th century with the expansion of European colonialism.
Over the years, the Horn of Africa captured the attention of many colonial countries due to their strategic location. As a result, Eritrea fell in the hands of many colonial rulers.
For someone who may have closely observed the tracks of Eritrea’s railway, their construction may seem to have started during the Italian colonial period. However, our history sources show otherwise. A railway was built by the British in 1867, which is 20 years prior to the advent of Italian colonialism in Eritrea. The railway was built to assist the military raids the British organized against the then Ethiopia’s Emperor Tedros, to free its imprisoned citizens.
Hence, a 19 kilometre-long railway from Zula to Kumayle was set for a military purpose and helped in the transportation of soldiers, armaments and other materials. The railway was later dismantled and taken away after it had served its purpose.
The full-fledged construction of railroads in Eritrea started with the coming of the Italian colonial rule. The Italians built railways to ensure their expansion to the interior of Eritrea. Construction started in October 1887, with the building of the first railway from Massawa to Sehatit (Dogali) and was completed in March 1888. The construction of railroads was halted for a while until the civilian administrator Ferdinando Martini, who served as Administrator of Eritrea from 1897 to 1906, decided to proceed with it in 1900. Ferdinando Martini established an office for the building of a railway linking Massawa to Asmara after he had decided to move the capital to Asmara.
In 1904, a railroad connecting Digdigta and Ghindae was completed in two years. Later, in April 1908, a contract was signed with a construction company called Remiginio Gandolfi to build a rail connecting Ghindae and Nefasit (26 kilometres). The construction project was finalized on the 16th of March 1910. Concurrently, the Italian rulers decided to start two lines of construction to connect the remaining locations: Nefasit- Arberebue (12 km) and Arberebue- Asmara (13 km). The project of constructing a 125 kilometres long railway joining Asmara and Massawa was completed when the Nefasit-Arberebue line was finalized on the 6th of March 1910 and that of Arberebue-Asmara on the 6th of December 1911 (after being under construction for 4 years).
Soon, the Italian rule embarked on yet another task to continue the construction of a railway that would extend to the western lowlands. The project also entailed the inclusion of Kassala, the Sudan, in the plan to generate income by allowing trade stocks to go to Massawa instead of Port-Sudan. The execution of the plan took a very long time. The construction of the 104-km long railway connecting Asmara and Keren started in 1910 and was completed in 1922. The reasons for the delay are thought to be financial shortcomings the Italian company was facing and lack of materials caused by World War I.
While the road connecting Asmara and Keren was under construction, the Keren-Aqurdet line had already started by 1916. After the construction of the initial 8 kms in the first year, however, the construction work was put on hold until 1920, when it started again and was brought to completion on the 7th of February 1928.
Afterwards, construction continued from Aqurdet to Tesseney and from there two railways were built — one joining Tesseney with Omhajer and the other joining Tesseney with Kassala. The construction of the 110-km long railway connecting Aqurdet with Tesseney was divided into three parts: Aqurdet-Bisha, Bisha-Alit and Alit-Tesseney. When the 37-km long railway between Aqurdet and Bisha was completed, construction was halted again due to the plans of the Italian military to expand to Ethiopia. Once the Italian regime conquered Ethiopia, there was a plan to build a railway linking Omhajer wtih Gonder, Ethiopia, which was never executed.
As our history sources indicate, the 352-km long railroad connecting Massawa with Bisha had a big role in the economic development of Eritrea. Prior to 1935, modern roads were not very much known and the train was the only fast and modern means of transportation available. Thus, it is safe to say that the railway played a big part in facilitating trade activities and social communication in the country. For instance, in the years 1936-1940, trains transported 420 tons of goods and more than 1700 people every day. That is, 153,000 tons and 627,800 people in a year. All in all, the construction of railways in Eritrea served a big purpose by helping grow the economy during the Italian colonial period and thereafter.
World War II interrupted the construction for a while which started again in 1941, when the British government built a 64-km long rail from Kassala to Tesseney, to lead an attack against the Italian government. The British planned to join this rail with those built during the Italian colonial period, but the idea proved to be impractical owing to the differences in the methods of construction.
After the British took over all of Eritrea they first took an initiative of ameliorating the existing means of transportation. Nonetheless, the initiative was never brought to completion with so many accidents of derailed trains. Some railroads were even disassembled and taken away for other purposes. An example is the taking apart of the railroad between Aqurdet and Bisha in 1942 and using some as spare parts and the transfer of the remainder to the war in Libya. Moreover, attacks by thieves on trains were increasing.
On the 15th of September 1952, Eritrea was joined by a federation to Ethiopia. Although this may seem to indicate that the existing lines of transportation were under the control of the Eritrean parliament, powerful nations helped Ethiopia to be in charge. The railway which was under the control of the Ethiopian regime was called “Rails of the Imperial Kingdom of Ethiopia”. In addition to that, the British government sold the rail connecting Kassala and Tesseney to Sudan, on the sly, during the period of transition in power.
However, the Ethiopian empire was in total disagreement with the action taken by the British regime, which resulted in the cancellation of the sale. Moreover, to leverage the profitable opportunity that was created, the Ethiopians planned to join the Eritrean means of transportation to theirs, but their plan never succeeded. Subsequently, the end of the federation with Ethiopia and the start of the armed struggle further enhanced the decline of the railway.
Protests for workers to stop working, administrations based on discrimination, trains serving as targets for attacks and a drop in revenue were some of the reasons that can be attributed to the decline. In 1974, the Asmara-Keren railway was officially closed. Later on, on the 17th of October 1975, the closure of the Asmara-Massawa line was announced, and a year later (1976), its closure became official. Soon, the railway began to deteriorate and got dismantled as people and the army began to use the rods as fences and embankments.
Following Eritrea’s independence in 1991, the government of Eritrea took the initiative for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the ruined railway. A plan to restore the rail connecting Asmara and Massawa began to be implemented on 28th of April 1994, with the reassignment of veteran and retired workers. The reconstruction effort of Eritrea’s railroads was a demonstration of the government’s policy of self-reliance.
By renovating the ruined workshops, the rehabilitation work showed a steady progress owing to the arduous participation of the people (especially with the start of summer work program) and the government. On December 1999, the railway linking Asmara and Embatkala was completed. The deployment of the skilled labour force to the war played a big part in enjoining the reconstruction process from maintaining its momentum. Nevertheless, with the establishment of Warsai Yikealo, the end of the war marked the furtherance of this reconstruction plan in a more aggressive and organized way.
The Asmara-Massawa railway was completed in February 2003 and was inaugurated on the 13th ceremony of the Fenqil Operation, which saw the liberation of Massawa. That day was historic as it marked the resumption of the railway service after it had been out of use for 27 years.