The first railway in Eritrea opened in 1888 from the port of Massawa to Emkulu. It was built to a gauge of 950mm, one of several gauges then in common use for light railways in Italy. The line was extended slowly in stages, reaching Asmara in 1911, Akordat in 1928, and to its furthest extent at Bishia (280km from Massawa) in 1932.
From 1905, a 42km, 600mm gauge railway opened connecting the port of Mersa Fatuma with Kululi near the Ethiopean border. This was built to serve the potash extraction industry, and operated intermittently until the late 1920s.
It was planned to continue the main line a further 100km beyond Bishia to the border of Sudan near Teseney, but construction was forestalled by resources being diverted elsewhere to support the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Eritrea fell to British control in 1942, but the section of railway from Akordat to Bishia had been severely damaged in the conflict and was abandoned.
The remaining line from Massawa to Akordat prospered in the 1950s and 1960s, but in the 1970s it was completely destroyed during civil unrest in Ethiopia, of which Eritrea was then a part. Reconstruction of the railway started in 1995 with the line reopening in stages from Massawa. In 2003 it reached Asmara, 118km from Massawa. Restoration of the line from Asmara to Akordat was reported to be in progress at that time but does not appear to have been completed. Funding sought to reopen the line as far as Bishia and even to extend it to the Sudanese border has not been forthcoming.
The line between Massawa and Asmara carries some freight traffic, and a few short ditance passenger services on Sundays and holidays. A steam hauled passenger train is available for tourist excursions and private charters, which may cover the whole length of the line.
Photo image © Mebrat Tzehaie
Flag image from CIA World Factbook