Winston Churchill, regarded the Uganda Railway, later renamed the Lunatic Line, “a brilliant conception.” In his book ‘‘My African Journey,’’ he noted, “The British art of ‘muddling through’ is here seen in one of its finest expositions.
Through everything—through the forests, through the ravines, through troops of marauding lions, through famine, through war, through five years of excoriating parliamentary debate, muddled and marched the railway.”
One hundred and thirteen years later, history has repeated itself.
Like the British, we’ve muddled through five years of censorious parliamentary debate, condescending opinion pages, conservationist ideologues, and famine, muddled and marched the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR).
This time, we were better than the British in that that we didn’t lose more than 2,400 lives to marauding lions. In fact, the descendants of Tsavo’s “man eaters” never tasted human flesh this time round.
We should be even better with the ensuing business model, in avoiding vandalism and in building a 24-hour economy.
This is how: We must liberalize this infrastructure from day one. Just like Thika Road, SGR should allow big and small rolling stocks to operate on the infrastructure with the Kenya Railways Corporation as a regulator.
The import of this argument is to create competition such that the consumer becomes the beneficiary.
There must be a train departing from Mombasa and Nairobi every hour so that in virtually every station, there will be a train passing the other going in each direction.
The utility of the infrastructure will be high, make everybody take care of the infrastructure, and above all restore positive energy that such large investment brings.
In no time, the rail will become the major mode of transport, thus enabling a 24-hour economy. This model works well with the British Rail.
We must also recognise that many people have invested in the trucking industry and that you cannot dismiss them overnight.
It is common sense that they will fight back in similar manner they have always done with the old Lunatic Line that was vandalized, making rail transport unreliable, thus necessitating the continued use of road transport to haul goods to the hinterlands.
This is not a secret. It is what has been going on. My suggestion is that these people are stakeholders in the SGR.
The earlier we involve them and ask them to form co-operative societies to own rolling stock, the better and greater sense of ownership we create.
Let us learn from the Lunatic Line that monopoly builds no incentives to be efficient or offer quality products even with regulation. We must all be fearful of a monopoly because they often make prices arbitrarily high. The urge to amortise the investment may negate the intended purpose of building SGR – affordable and safe transport for people travelling to Mombasa.
That is if we fail to allow a competitive environment to force operators to adopt a price that most citizens can afford.
It is in the interest of the government to change the SGR narrative by creating an enabling environment for job creation along the railway line.
The barrier to entry in rail business is the infrastructure and not the rolling stock as some people think.
With chamas (investment clubs) and co-operative societies, there is sufficient local capital to ensure a piece of native ownership in this “brilliant conception.”
SGR will certainly open up many entrepreneurial opportunities that may not be obvious to the citizens along the railway corridor.
It is our obligation to bring these opportunities to the attention of indigenous people without which foreigners will occupy the space and leave us to complain.
From building convenience stores at rail stations, to an apps developers building a ticketing system, to those who will build luxury coaches with five-star restaurants, we have the opportunity to exploit the SGR. Let the people deploy their creativity in this magnificent infrastructure.
One hundred years down the road, our great grandchildren will say that we exploited the infrastructure to its fullest.