These are however outweighed by the opportunities. All the five members of the East African Community have agreed in principle to build the lines in their territories. The construction of the Regional Railway Standard Gauge Network kicks off in Kenya in February 2012 and will be fully rolled out in the entire region by 2050.
The network has four phases. The first will be the Mombasa-Malaba-Kampala line, which will be joined by the Kampala-Kigali-Bujumbura line. There is also the high capacity standard gauge railway line from Lamu to Lokichogio for onward connection to Juba; and a high capacity standard gauge line from Nairobi to Moyale for onward connection to Addis Ababa.
These projects are part of development plans in Kenya’s Vision 2030. Kenya Railways managing director Duva Muli says that the cost of transport in the region is very high compared with world benchmarks, hence the need for the regional standard gauge railway.
Mr Muli noted that the transport element for goods and services in the region was as high as 45 per cent of total costs, compared with less than 15 per cent in countries with good railway systems. Uneconomic and unreliable inter-urban passenger transport has also led to congestion in cities, while the shift from rail to roads has resulted in high costs of road maintenance.
“If business in the region continues to grow, then the Mombasa port will have to process at least 30 million tonnes a year. And if the railway network remains the same, then a truck will have to leave the port every minute of every day, putting major strains on road infrastructure. It could lock out most transit goods,” Mr Muli said.
Mr Muli noted that the existing metre gauge railway network faces challenges of obsolescence, limited capacity in tonnage and speed. As a result, the railway accounts for less than 4 per cent of freight haulage to and from the port. The proposed Lamu port –with a natural deep harbour and a corresponding railway network — will have the potential of creating a land bridge across Africa.
The corporation is looking at the prospects of a Lamu-Douala train network that would take four and a half days. The voyage by sea takes 25 days. Following the concessioning of the operations of Kenya Railways to Rift Valley Railways (RVR), the corporation was turned into an asset authority to manage non-conceded assets.
However, the infrastructure RVR is using still belongs to Kenya Railways. Thus, Kenya Railways’ role is to ensure that the concessionaire does not abuse assets and provides service. Kenya Railways is now mainly concerned with safety issues, performance, the environment and passenger tariffs.
Today, a wagon takes a month from Mombasa to Kampala and back. The current track — normally known as the Kenya-Uganda Railway — was built on the route of least resistance because of lack of machinery and technology to build bridges.
It therefore meanders around difficult terrain. However, the standard gauge line will be different. It will move out from Mombasa and pass through Konza, behind Ngong Hills, Maimahiu, Naivasha. Trains destined for Kampala will not pass through Nairobi.
By Fred Oluoch, The East African