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A couple of weeks ago, I took the train to Nanyuki. Both the rail car I rode in and the train track are refurbished. And what an experience this turned out to be, both in itself and in what it portends for Kenya’s future.
I had never had the privilege of going on the metre gauge train before, and had a mental picture of a “chuchu” train ride experience, the kind featured in so many children’s books. I was amazed how quickly the five-hour leisurely ride to Nanyuki went by.
It is noteworthy that the Nairobi-Nanyuki railway is back at a cost far lower than the mind-blowing figures to which we have become accustomed to for major infrastructure projects.
Alongside this was also a sadness that not only had we lost out on many years opportunity when this rail line’s economic potential lay dormant, but also that we had denied children living there the thrill, excitement and dreams of seeing trains in motion.
The sight of cheering children all the way reminded me that no child under 15 who had never left the area had ever seen a train, except in school books or on TV or other media.
To them, this must have been an experience akin to that felt by the children of the early 1900s when the Mombasa-Kisumu railway (the ‘Lunatic Express’) and its subsidiary lines were built, including the Nairobi-Nanyuki branch.
My grandmother’s tales of how excited she and her teenage compatriots used to be as they ran daily to see the train pass by, babies in tow hit me. In later years she would take that same train to go to market and to take her children to hospital.
Many years later, she went on the inaugural Madaraka Day Express on the Standard Gauge Railway as its then oldest passenger, and was filled with joy about what the two daily passenger and cargo trains would mean for people and produce.
When asked about the cost of the SGR, her comment was that the train was quiet, fast and comfortable, and that just like the trains of her childhood, even though the cost could have been so much lower, she believed this investment would pay off in benefits to Kenya with time.
As I rode on the Nairobi-Nanyuki railway, I couldn’t help reflecting on my grandmother’s words, and how careless the generation after hers and my generation had been with the assets we had inherited, both from economic and human experience perspectives.
Amidst these feelings of despair, there was hope.
Much of the infrastructure that supported the railway — horticultural storage warehouses, cattle holding pens — was intact, an astonishing feat considering our penchant to grab anything standing loose and seemingly abandoned.
It was clear that work on bringing these up to working levels had started in earnest, in anticipation of increased business. The train stations still exist, and have been beautifully restored. Everything is there and ready to come back roaring for when train services are fully up. This region is poised for an economic uplift.
I was also excited at the relatively low cost it took to revive this railway. A new railway had been estimated to cost about Sh25 billion. Separately, a new petroleum pipeline from Nakuru had been mooted to supply Nanyuki and environs, costing upwards of Sh20 billion.
Heaven knows how long it would have taken to build either, or both. In the end, refurbishing the railway cost Sh3 billion, and took six months. How? Because Kenyans got together for a win-win.
Kenya Pipeline Company saw an opportunity to serve the Mt Kenya and Northern regions through the railway as a cheaper alternative to a pipeline, at least until the market grows enough to justify a pipeline.
The cash component of the project was Sh1.8 billion and KPC was able to come up with the money via a Special Dividend to the National Treasury.
Kenya Railways had material readily available to refurbish the railway. The National Youth Service had skilled labour available and eager to show their prowess.
And the Kenya Defence Forces had the engineering capabilities to take on the more complex works.
To deal with land encroachment, Kenya Railways enlisted the support of residents by explaining the reasons and economic benefits to them.
The corporation worked with county governments along the way to relocate markets and hired local youth to work on the project.
Stations were restored, instead of putting up new and expensive structures. The result: an efficiently rebuilt railway, with none of the procurement hitches and land disputes that have bedevilled other infrastructure projects.
Vivo Kenya and Del Monte are already regular users of the line. Others are negotiating transport contracts with Kenya Railways. A revival of agriculture and the onset of agro business are now real possibilities in the region, as is the establishment of industrial parks and the expansion of tourism.
This experience has other opportunities. The Naivasha-Kisumu railway is being rehabilitated along the same lines at about under Sh4 billion, a far cry from the hundreds of billions of shillings estimated for an extension of the SGR which would triple movement of cargo and people but the meter gauge for now, we can grow the economy.
Which points to another lesson: we have the resources to do pretty amazing things, through ingenuity, the will to do good and laser-like focus. We can do it.
This article first appeared on www.businessdailyafrica.com
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