MWANGI: As Uhuru’s pet project is launched, questions linger

The Standard Gauge Railway (SGR)
The Standard Gauge Railway (SGR)

At long last, there is hope for a new era of improved rail transport in East Africa following the launch of the much-vaunted standard gauge railway in Kenya, but not without a huge cost that could haunt the country’s economy for generations to come.

While the opposition has relentlessly sought to find fault in the project, there is no denying that the new railway will have a major impact on the overall transport sector and freight industry. Indeed, the efficient movement of goods and services is essential for faster integration and development.

While the impact on Kenya’s and the region’s economies remains to be seen, the frustrations in the transport sector have long dominated talks between partner states. Over the past few years, there has been notable progress in reducing the number of days cargo takes to move from the ports of Mombasa and Dar es Salaam into the hinterland, especially the landlocked countries of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

This has led to improved processes to ensure faster clearance of goods at the ports of entry. Reforms have also led to fewer roadblocks and weighbridges on the way, among other changes designed to reduce transit time.

However, the real game changer will be faster train services, which the construction of the standard gauge railway promises to address. Naturally, goods trains will travel faster and eliminate the hindrances of constant checks at weighbridges and accompanying corruption cartels.

Moreover, train services will haul large numbers of containers at a go, saving the region’s road network from significant damage by trucks. This damage to roads is exacerbated by corruption, which makes police officers look the other way even when they encounter overloaded trucks.

There are other effects that will reverberate across the economies of East Africa, too. Fewer trucks on the roads will mean less traffic congestion, faster traffic flow, and fewer accidents on our roads. Trucks will be forced to look for business in areas that are not covered by the railway line, leading to the availability of affordable truck services in hitherto marginalized areas. Increased competition by trucks will be likely to lead to lower road transport costs across the region.

Still, all these benefits do not justify wanton waste of public resources and the profiteering that has characterized Kenya’s Jubilee administration. Critics have compared the costs of the rail’s construction in Kenya with similar projects elsewhere and concluded that the country’s project was essentially a rip-off of public funds. This is in contrast with the prudent leadership seen in Tanzania, where President John Magufuli rejected an offer by the Chinese and opted to look elsewhere for funds to build railway infrastructure.

The quality of the railway has also been called into question, with some saying that the country got a raw deal given the latest technological advances in railway transport. For such a heavy and long-term investment, the country should not, for instance, have gone for a diesel-powered system when the world is moving on to electric trains. The speeds that the trains will move at, while impressive in comparison with the previous network, will still fall far below global standards for fast trains.

Moreover, Kenya will be saddled by an enormous debt burden that will bog down future governments and generations of Kenyans. The economic viability of the new railway is also not assured, especially with Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi increasingly looking to Tanzania as a viable alternative to Kenya for port services. The high level of corruption in Kenya translates into higher business expenses, which makes Tanzania an increasingly attractive prospect.

The decision by Uganda to export its oil through Tanzania rather than Kenya should have jolted the latter’s leaders from their deep slumber and assumptions. Uganda has also not committed itself to extending the standard gauge railway beyond Kenya, which means that business from the hinterland is not assured.

Would the huge financial outlay on the new railway network have served Kenya and East Africa better if the funds had been utilized on more urgent priorities? Would the economies of East Africa have benefitted more through investment in growth and social services sectors rather than a giant infrastructure project of doubtful integrity and future? These questions are still begging for answers. 

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Story By Isaac Mwangi
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