Rail transport epitomises Kenya’s growth historically, and continuous evolution

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By Philip Mainga

Rail is the future of transport. In recent years, countries have turned to it to address some of the problems threatening their transport systems. Increasingly, we desire trains that are fast, reliable, energy efficient and able to cope with the increasing demand on infrastructure. We are looking to rail to deliver new innovations and make more efficient use of our existing and future infrastructure. From our own trends, we can predict that we will make more progress in the railway sector over the next two decades than we have in the last 100 years. New technologies and digitisation will revolutionise rail and make it even safer, more reliable and cheaper.

Investment in Kenyan urban rail infrastructure is estimated to exceed Sh1 trillion by 2025. This includes development of high-speed rail and the highlight Nairobi Railway City (NCR), which is touted to ease traffic congestion not just in the central business district but in the city’s sprawling suburbs as well. Importantly, NCR is estimated to save Sh2 billion the country loses annually to perennial vehicular congestion.

Already, Kenya Railways, in an ambitious project co-funded by government and World Bank, has refurbished several trains and constructed 10 stations – among them Dandora, Mwiki, Githurai, Kahawa, and Ruiru – to augment existing ones. NRC is among priority projects identified under the Nairobi Integrated Urban Plan (NIUPLAN) as a strategy to expand Nairobi’s central business district. Also planned for refurbishment is the old line from Naivasha to Kisumu at a cost of Sh40 billion, to connect the capital, where SGR terminates, to the Lake Region.

As most would know by now, government has, for a while now, had plans for a second phase of the SGR, to connect Nairobi to Kisumu and onwards to Malaba. When actualised, it will pass through Narok, Bomet and Kericho Counties and terminate in Kisumu where a modern inland port will be put up. Once the project is complete, we would have created a seamless standard gauge railway from the port of entry at Mombasa through Kenya’s western border to the Ugandan capital, Kampala. The attendant opportunities in terms of economic integration and expansion are endless.

By the time we are done, about 90 percent of goods will be transported through rail. Admittedly, it will significantly reduce, with the benefit of regulation, how much cargo we haul on-road, for understandably, rail transport is an arm within the transport system, often in competition with others forms of transport. But there areas on which, there could be more cooperation and less competition. These include provision of auxiliary but vital services such as last-mile connections, as well as positive engagement in government’s overall objective to introduce and implement corresponding support arrangements that include provision of alternative transport solutions in areas that trains cannot serve for any range of reasons.

Put another way, trains cannot deliver goods to consumers – it is simply impossible to have that intensive a network – which creates work for road hauliers over short distances. The benefits for those in cargo business cannot be gainsaid – shorter travel routes, sometimes as brief as crossing the road from the inland container depot to Industrial area, attractive haulage rates, extremely slow wear and tear and better monitoring.

From the time it was commissioned at the start of the 20th Century until now, rail transport has been an enormous logistical achievement, both as a strategic facility and as an expression of our economic ambitions – linking the Indian Ocean the East African interior.

Today, SGR is an essential part of safari adventures, as the old line was then, in addition to providing commuter and cargo solutions quickly, efficiently and reliably. Importantly, it is a huge milestone for the Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to foster development and global co-operation.

I emphasize BRI because connectivity in the world today is key, and BRI embodies a strategic component – the development of infrastructure like sea and air ports, logistics areas and industrial parks. In this regard, BRI, on account of the amount of buy-in it has received worldwide, is poised to become one of the most important international cooperation initiatives, offering economic development, industrial development and shared technologies.

From the so-called Lunatic Express, today Kenya Railways represents and preserves the historical growth of our country and its continuous evolution. Charles Elliot, the Commissioner, British East Africa from 1900 to 1904, remarked in 1903, “It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, but it is uncommon for a railway to create a country…” The summation of our rail line is just that – it has developed Kenya into the country it is today.

On the basis of a holistic definition of performance, Kenya Railways takes pride in the fact that rail transport is the second most important mode of transport in the country, after road transport, for both cargo and passenger services. The challenge has been that because – through time – of our development priorities, it has not been adequately developed, explained by lack of legal framework to spur further development, especially for the much desired metropolitan railway system to cure the transport problem in the city.

Our priority in the short term, as we work towards a metropolitan rail network, is to optimise operations of the existing commuter rail transit network in terms of accessibility, routing and convenience, by addressing underlying limitations of space/land, coordinating existing facilities and environmental concerns.

Railway development – as suggested by such researcher Victor Wahome in “Factors affecting the development of Nairobi metropolitan rail network” (2013) – is never the business of the railway company alone. We exist within the Nairobi metropolis, with ambitions to contribute to and thrive in a liveable community. In this regard, we are alive to the social impact of public investments like the ones we undertake. Support from stakeholders – such as politicians, development partners and environmentalists – is not just welcome; it is also a positive driving force for sustainable development of our transport projects, and necessary in ensuring smooth implementation.

In the same vein, we desire that these stakeholders obtain better understanding of our current and future projects, through engaging us, seeking input and clarification, as well as making suggestions or contributions for a wholesome growth experience. Indeed, openness and communication are vital to the success of our mission to become a provider of world class rail services, by developing an integrated, efficient rail network.

We live in an exciting time, one where innovative, ever-advancing rail technology promises urban and long distance travel that is clean, cheap, reliable and fast. It is in our best interests – and that of our posterity – to join hands to actualize this future. We can customize transport to be what we want it to be, and this is the journey we have begun.

Author is Ag. Managing Director, Kenya Railways