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About 160 kilometres northwest of Nairobi, dozens of police officers on duty at Nakuru Railway Station take turns each day physically searching travellers before freeing them to proceed to their destinations.
Screening some of the approximately 100,000 passengers who pass through Kenya’s fourth largest town by road each day has become an important aspect of these officers’ routine for the last five years.
Yet when this station was established several decades ago, its mandate was security of the railway fleet—together with train passengers and cargo anticipated from Rift Valley and western Kenya.
“We are not here as a specialist railway force unit but as a regular police post whose officers take part in every general efforts to combat crime,” one of the officers told Business Daily.
To some extent, the Nakuru case highlights the gradual decline of the country’s railway transport network which began in 1980s, crippling one of Kenya’s oldest transport infrastructures.
This picture even gets clearer on a visit to the railway yard in Nairobi or just after a chat with officials of Rift Valley Railways (RVR), a consortium that won a 25-year concession to run the century-old Kenya-Uganda line in 2008.
Only about 40 of the 160 locomotives that the government handed RVR four years ago are in working condition.
The same tale may be told of the RVR’s wagons. About 1,000 of the 3,500 it inherited require costly renovation before being put to commercial use again.
The tourist-rich Nairobi-Mombasa route– once the backbone of Kenya’s rail passenger transport – is today served by a single track.
This means service must be suspended frequently to make repairs. Unlike decades ago when commuters flocked the rail stations, only criminals working in cahoots with unscrupulous scrap metal dealers still find use for single gauge rail materials these days.
The RVR consortium has lately been on an aggressive fund-raising campaign to replace the old tracks and put the Mombasa-Kampala train on new rails. But as Kenya waits for this to happen, says Roads Ministry permanent secretary Michael Kamau, the country’s roads now have to shoulder 90 per cent of passenger transit and 93 per cent of cargo conveyance.
The impact of this lopsided arrangement is as clear as day. Commercial vehicles are frequently violating the 48-tonne statutory weight limit with 64 tonnes per truck on average, roads officials say.
This practice has significantly raised road maintenance costs, tying up resources that the government could direct to building new infrastructure links.
“Whether we agree to raise axle weight limit or not, our roads remain vulnerable to overloading until we have a reverse situation where more cargo is transported by railway than roads,” Mr Kamau told private sector stakeholders recently at the height of lobbying to raise legal axle weight to 56 tonnes applied by other East African states.
Apart from enduring relatively higher road transport costs, trucks plying Mombasa-Kampala route (Northern Corridor) have also complained of increased insecurity especially between Nakuru and Malaba border.
Lately, Mombasa port, another umbilical cord for trade in Eastern Africa, has linked its congestion woes to inefficiency of rail transport system. “The moment you give us a properly working railway system, you get an efficient port service from us,” said Gichiri Ndua, Kenya Ports of Authority managing director.
But after a long decline, railroads are now getting back into official favour, says Kenya Railways managing director Nduva Muli. The bilateral pact signed a few years ago between Kenya and Uganda has invited private capitalists to provide rail services, allowing KR to push through with its plan to revamp rail system.
The proposed project—to be financed through a Public Private Partnership (PPP) and completed over the next five years—seeks to construct a high capacity standard gauge railway network in Kenya and connections to the region. When completed by 2017, the Sh431 billion ($5.2 billion) project will substitute Kenya’s highly inefficient northern corridor with 120km per hour freight trains and 180km per hour passenger fleets.
In its master plan, KR says it will extend its modernisation programme beyond the railway tracks to include development of its vast real estate holdings in Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu towns.
Real estate landmarks
In Nairobi, for instance, its 200-acre prime land in the central business district will transform into a mega city, with a variety of commercial buildings and a business park for light manufacturing or assembly.
The company also plans to build shopping malls, an entertainment park, parking silos and two hotels with conference facilities to accommodate 3,000 people on its land, currently spanning about 35 per cent of Nairobi’s central business district. The PPP model will allow private sector to initially build and own these mega projects.
Similar landmarks are planned for Mombasa and Kisumu.
The high premium that policy makers place on these planned projects came to the fore last month when Cabinet approved conversion of a government debt of Sh42.8 billion to equity, setting the stage for PPPs. Buoyed by this gesture, KR management has also petitioned the Treasury to waive the its Sh13.4 billion tax liability, in a bid to clean the corporation’s balance sheets and make it attractive to private investors.
To players outside government, the plan to upgrade the rail system invokes a journey down the memory lane.
Once a promising mode of transport, the decline of railway system can be traced back to late 1970s when the former East African Community integration and its institutions began to crumble.
While the EAC project has been revived with Uganda now accounting for 52 per cent of Sh101 billion that Kenya exports to the five member states, the rail network remains the missing link.
“The day when Kenyans will board a train to Kampala with perfect confidence that they will reach their destination comfortably, reliably and fast, is the day you will know that the region is firmly on the middle-income track.” Wolfgang Fengler, World Bank’s lead economist for Kenya said in an article he posted on the organisation’s blog late last month.
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