By Don Pablo
On Thursday this week, Kenya will recreate the steps that led to the formation of the country by commissioning the construction of the railway to Uganda. That it has taken us more than a century to add to what the British built in the 19th century is a shameful story for another day. Now is the time to rejoice at a crucial and long overdue move by the state.
The commissioning that will take place in Mombasa will be a walk down memory lane as attempts to open up East Africa’s hinterland are given a big push by the authorities in the region. The railway once complete will run from Mombasa to Malaba, into Uganda and beyond to Rwanda. South Sudan is said to be eager to have the railroad extended to Juba as well.
Construction of the railway has been a necessity for a country that relies heavily on road transport to haul bulky goods. Shockingly, Kenya uses trucks to transport up to 95 % of goods from the port in Mombasa. This reliance on an inefficient form of transportation has seen Kenyans pay heavily for our lack of options with the cost of transport and logistics accounting for 45% of the cost of goods in Kenya. The situation is bad enough without our neighbours relying on the same creaking infrastructure to transport their goods.
The advantages of rail over road are quite significant. This goes to explain the zeal shown by the President in having the rail infrastructure in place ASAP. For instance, one train carries approximately 216 TEUs (Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units); those big containers carried by trucks along our highways. It would take 108 trucks carrying 2 TEUs each to move the same number of ‘containers’. The heavy use of road transport explains why up to 60 trucks leave Mombasa for the interior of the country every hour!
This comparison of tonnage transported doesn’t even take into consideration the speed factor where the trains would move goods and passengers almost four times faster than the trucks. Incidentally, you’d be shocked to learn that Kenya is considered ‘landlocked’ due to the period it takes to move freight inland. It takes up to 7 days for a truck to move from Mombasa to Kisumu, a journey that the train would cover in a maximum of 17 hours.
The trucks that dot our highways are dangerous for road users and have been known to brazenly defy traffic rules. The crazy number of deaths on our roads can be partly attributed to their dangerous antics such as ‘freewheeling’ when driving downhill, driving in the middle of the road, and lack of tail lights. The trucks are also heavy and cause damage to the roads. The section between Uthiru and Limuru is a good example of the roads ‘sinking’ under the weight of the heavy machines. In terms of pollution, it’s quite obvious that 108 trucks would cause much more pollution than a single train.
The difference between these two forms of transportation in terms of cost efficiency, pollution and could not be any clearer.
Simply using a train to move goods would reduce the cost of transport by up to 60% according to government statistics. This would have a significant effect on the overall cost of living in the country and boost our economy. Crucially, Kenya will also reduce her import bill since we’ll require less fuel for transportation. Easy and cheaper means of transportation might also lead to industrialization along the rail corridor as industrialists take advantage of the infrastructure.
The benefits of the railway will also include appreciation of property value along the corridor. Sultan Hamud is particularly tipped to grow into a big town being a future railway depot. This would help in decongestion of major cities as satellite towns develop along the railway corridor.
The railway will be built in two phases with the first phase between Mombasa and Nairobi being completed in 2016. The construction phase will also come with benefits. At least 60 jobs will be created for every kilometre of track laid, a total of 30,000 jobs during the Mombasa-Nairobi phase.
The Sino-African workers won’t face as severe a threat from wildlife at Tsavo as their Anglo-Indian counterparts though, largely due to decimation of animals through poaching. Nor would they have to deal with locals attacking and stealing rail materials from them. The danger they will face will come in the form of competition as Tanzania tries to steal the shine from us.
As was the case in the early 20th century, the railway will transform life in Kenya and beyond. With the lines clearly drawn in the battle to be East Africa’s preferred transport route, it is good to see that our country is alert to the danger and willing to out-do our southern neighbor. It’s also encouraging to see the country seek alternatives to the 21st century lunatic express, the chaotic Mombasa-Kisumu highway. Sit back and watch the future of East Africa take shape.
(Statistics courtesy of Kenya Railways)