Addis Ababa, Ethiopia - There's an unusual buzz on the main streets of Ethiopia's capital city Addis Ababa - a metropolis of close to four million people. No, it's not the holiday preparation for the Ethiopian New Year which falls on September 12, nor the honking car horns of a wedding procession, or the loud speakers of shopping malls and restaurants advertising their latest "discounted products" that is different.

It's the US$475 million Chinese-financed Addis Ababa Light Rail Transit (AALRT) passenger coaches speeding back and forth over tracks, criss-crossing the city, that has got everybody talking. 

Over the past decade the Chinese have built various projects in and around the capital, including the country's first toll road and the African Union's headquarters. But the AALRT is likely to have the biggest impact on the city.

The railway was officially inaugurated just in time for the 24th African Union Summit in January this year.

While being tested by the operators since then, it has been tantalising Addis Ababa's long suffering commuters with the promise of transporting 80 000 across the city every day, thereby avoiding traffic jams.

After a seven-month-plus wait, the city's residents might finally get the chance to test the service themselves soon, according to a report from Ethiopianreporter.com, quoting officials of the state-owned Ethiopian Rail Corporation (ERC).

With both the new Ethiopian school year starting and the business cycle resuming afresh after the rainy season break this month, the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is touting the rail project as part of its ambitious economic plan, dubbed the Grand Transformation Plan II (GTP2). The party is feeling particularly pleased with itself anyway, after routing its opponents in the May elections, when it won every seat, in alliance with some regional parties.

AALRT, the first project of its kind for Africa's fourth biggest economy and second most populous nation, has not been without its challenges, however.

For one thing, it has failed to keep Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn's promise in January that it would be operating for the public by May. The official reasons offered for the delay were that electricity cables had not been provided by the authorities in time, and a lack of electricity. Now these problems have been solved, according to the media reports.

Tickets are already being printed, with fares ranging from two Ethiopian birr (US$ 0.1) to 10 Ethiopian birr (US$ 0.5) These fares reflect heavy government subsidies, the reports say.

The government is boasting that this is the first urban metro light rail scheme to be built in a sub-Saharan country outside of South Africa.

Desalegn himself is now on a state visit to China to solicit financing for AALRT2, which will extend the network further into the suburbs. Ethiopia, the world's most populous landlocked country, plans to construct about 2 800km of extra railway lines across the country and to ports in neighbouring countries.