As Ethiopia looks to railway transport to accelerate industrialization, the Ministry of Transport is readying itself with a bill that seeks to establish a regulatory body.
According to the bill to be tabled in parliament, the office will mainly be responsible for setting up and auditing standards of safety and tariff levels. It will also be expected to streamline capacity building in the required technologies, as well as licensing issues in the sector.
The regulatory body, with a prior vision to ensure the safety of railway transport, comes a year after the LRT became operational, while the Ethio-Djibouti railway has come to its final chapter before completion.
Among the pioneering African countries to have a railway, the Ethio-Djibouti route ceased providing a service in 2008. In the meantime, different advanced lines and technologies have been introduced to revamp the service. The Light Railway System, operational since 2015, is also the only one on the continent.
Currently, there are close to 5,000km of railway routes through eight corridors under study and design, with some already at the implementation stage.
The projects include the Addis Abeba-Modjo-Awash-Dire Dawa-Dewanle; Modjo-Shashemne-Arbaminch-Konso-Moyale; Addis Abeba-Ljaji-Jimma-Gudaferda Dima, with extension to South Sudan, and the Awash-Kombolcha-Mekelle-Shire routes
The only operational railway system currently is the Addis Abeba Light Railway Transit (AALRT). Though fully functional and contributing to the city's burden of public transportation needs, the issue of safety is yet to be fully resolved.
Almost a year back when the service first started, the issue of standards was raised, which was then monitored and implemented by the Tianjin Urban Light Rail Transit Association - an international certifying agency, charging 300,000 dollars to issue certification.
Then, when it started, there were 40 outstanding issues left to be attended to. The ideal checklist for safety assurance includes three thousand items categorised under human resources, the condition of trains, power supply, signalling capability and control centre.
Inconsistent standards were among the factors red flagged by the Auditor general's office in its 2015/16 report to Parliament.
Despite the absence of refined standards, the LRT became operational with a green light from the Federal Transport Authority(FTA).
"That was a transient strategy; now with the coming into operation of much bigger and complicated projects, the issue has to be treated separately from the implementing wing," said Abent Solomon, legal advisor to the Minister of Transport.
The need for the establishment of the new authority has come with a basic rationale of regulating railway transport at a local level and overseeing it at every stage of its progress. One more round of public discussions will be conducted before tabling the final draft.
The shift of standards from one to the other has resulted in project cost fluctuations, identified by the Auditor General, which have indirectly played a role in setting tariffs.
Not only will the upcoming regulatory body be mandated to oversee the Corporation, but also any player in the sector, including spare parts suppliers, maintenance services and driving licenses.
It is expected to establish minimum country standards for railway locomotives, and the infrastructure and spare parts used. It will only be those with licenses that can import spare parts.
Among the issues that have surfaced over the last year, the supply of spare parts was among the serious challenges identified by the Ethiopian Railway Corporation (ERC).
Moreover, there are mandates for issuing certificates of competencies for drivers, trainers and technicians, who lead the safety management of the railway. It will also have the power to investigate and report on train accidents.
In relation to drivers, the Authority will also give a license to either private or public-owned training institutions. Again, the regulation has opened a space for the Authority to issue licenses for private railway operators. So far, the private sector is restricted from getting involved in railway operations.
So far, drivers for the LRT have received their driving license from the FTA. Not only that, the power to give the authorisation of the LRT to open for service was given by the FTA, after checking the safety of the 34km line.
Tasks of audit and inspection of safety issues, renewal of licenses and termination will also be done by this Authority.
In case of any findings on safety matters that will endanger the users' lives, the Authority has the power to terminate any of the railway operations. However, if the findings are not too serious, it can order respective designations to make immediate corrections.
"We are planning to present the proclamation to Parliament by early September 2016," said Abent. "For now, the document is only left with one round of stakeholder meetings"
"The actual establishment, however, may take longer," he added.
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