The news that the government is mobilising funds to spend on rehabilitating the more than 100-year old lunatic railway line between Naivasha to Malaba is attracting a great deal of public interest.
It’s like we had forgotten that we have a metre gauge railway line doing business between Mombasa and Kampala.
Indeed, despite the existence of the SGR, the Mombasa- Nairobi metre-gauge line is used mainly for carrying specialised cargo, the common type being raw materials for the steel industry.
What is the state of the metre gauge line in terms of operational efficiency, investment on the permanent way, new locomotives and wagons?
I don’t have updated statistics.
The most comprehensive information is stuff the government put in the public domain when it was terminating the concession to the Rift Valley Railway in 2017.
As we know it, RVR is the entity that was contracted by the governments of Kenya and Uganda to run the 1,400km railway line between Mombasa and Kampala under a 25-year concession.
Truth be told, the RVR concession failed dismally. Concession fees due to the government, amounting to some $4.1 million had been outstanding for years. Monthly rent owed to the Kenya Railways Corporation (KRC) amounted to $1.7 million.
RVR also owed $20.7 million to KRC for life expired assets and another $10.7 million for wagons and assets destroyed in accidents. And, how did the concessionaire perform in terms of new investment and the volumes of freights moved?
Dismally, despite the fact that international financial institutions supporting the concession pumped in billions of shillings into the business.
According to engineering practice in railway business, you must impose speed restrictions on the damaged sections of the track when you don’t have money to spend on maintaining the track.
At the time RVR was being kicked out, 17.3 percent of the track was under speed restrictions, a reflection of the dire straits it was in. How about the rehabilitation of locomotives, rolling stock and buildings?
Under the concession agreement, any new assets purchased by RVR was to be booked in what is called the conceded assets account. At the time RVR was being kicked out, there was almost nothing in that account.
RVR purchased 20 locomotives in 2016. But the machines purchased for billions of shillings turned out, after examination by engineers, to be life-expired.
The jalopies could not be recognised as assets in the conceded assets books and were left to rot at a location within the Nairobi Railway Station yard.
What is my point? It is that rehabilitating the existing metre gauge is not going to be a walk in the park.
And, it seems we are pumping in billions of shillings in the railway sector — and at a fast pace — without strengthening and improving the governance of the sector. It baffles me just how much the political elite is obsessed with land.
Last year, KRC bought hundreds of acres of land from East Africa Portland Cement to construct bulk terminal and transhipment facilities for the SGR.
From what I gather, part of the land is now under the control of influential elite, courtesy of sections of the management of the corporation.
What I hear is that the board and the Ministry of Transport appear have clashed over the punishing the culprit.
Clearly, and considering the billions committed to this sector, and the complex negotiations we will have to enter into, KRC has to evolve into a strong corporate entity beyond manipulation by the political elite.
In the immediate future, we will have to decide on operations of the new assets we are acquiring including for the Nairobi Commuter Service.
We cannot leave operations to the Chinese for ever. The government has circulated a draft bill for the so-called open access system where multiple operators will be allowed to bring in their locomotives and wagons.
We are staring a new Tower of Babel.