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How vandals are chipping away railway in the bush - VIDEO

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The vandalised SGR in Murtoto, Suswa. The costly infrastructure has been lying idle since the project stalled. PHOTO ROBERT GICHIRA | NMG

It ends abruptly in the bush. The Jubilee government’s most expensive piece of infrastructure terminates hurriedly in Murtoto, Suswa, about six kilometres deep into the wilderness from the Mai Mahiu-Narok highway.

A pack of railway foundation pillars is stacked on top of each other, marking the finality of that moment when Chinese contractors, who built the standard gauge railway (SGR), ran out of funds and hung their boots.

As a last act of kindness, they fenced it off before they abandoned it, after building 592km of the line from Mombasa. Shrubs are germinating on the gleaming line, the longest almost knee-high, following the months of disuse.

A ‘No admittance’ sign is plastered on every cement post, sunk one metre apart along the line. In between the posts is an iron and steel fence that should lock away the SGR from harm’s way and trespassers.

Vast land stretches further ahead into the wilderness beyond the end of the line. And with every kilometre ahead, dreams of landlords waiting for a share of the railway billions are muted. Some, already compensated for their land, are now quietly ‘repossessing’ it.

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The end of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) at Murtoto in Suswa area. PHOTO | ROBERT GICHIRA | NMG

Then there is another group of land speculators who had bought large tracts of land from locals further ahead who would have joined the list of railway millionaires had things gone as planned.

Before it stopped abruptly, they were next in line, waiting for their turn to resell their land to the government and walk away with a fortune as hundreds of others did on the line from Mombasa to Nairobi.

But with the railway ending shortly after Suswa, they are now counting painful losses.

Perched on top of one of the imposing bridges that tower 100 metres above the ground is a local guard, dressed in the colourful traditional Maasai attire.

From time to time, he leaves his comfort leaning on what is left of the line, and walks lazily from one end of the bridge to the next, his sword dangling from its holster, restless, and suspicious of any unfamiliar motor vehicles, like the one we are using to access the end of the line.

He has the advantage of height which gives him the vantage point he needs to see what is happening further ahead on the line. Mobile in hand ready to call for help should he spot any trouble.

Below him are dozens of sheep and goats grazing inside the line, having accessed it from the numerous openings made by locals seeking grazing land.

A visit to the end of the line by the Business Daily has, however, revealed the shocking reality of vandals chipping away the abandoned line one bridge at a time, selling off the railway as scrap metal in neighbouring towns as Kenya Railways police deployed to man the line sleep on the job.

At least three bridges that tower up in the air have been vandalised almost in their entirety, as thieves walk away with one piece of metal after the other fuelled by the booming scrap metal business. Who the thieves are and where they come from, no one knows.

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At least three bridges towering in the air, that cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of shillings, have been vandalised almost in their entirety, as daring thieves walk away with one piece of the railway line after the other to feed the booming scrap metal business. PHOTO | ROBERT GICHIRA | NMG

Moses Adega, a resident of Murtoto, says he was shocked why the government abandoned the line in the wilderness.

“The government should have terminated the line at least at the next town to make it usable. Now here in the bush, nothing goes on apart from vandalism at night,” he said.

Despite giving them more than one month to respond to our inquiries, Kenya Railways refused to comment on the extent of the vandalism and the cost of the bridges so far vandalised. It also did not respond to our inquiries on the initiatives put in place to stop vandals from chipping away the railway line.

Instead, it issued a statement dubbed ‘railway network expansion special update’ in which it outlined the milestones it has achieved in supporting the Big Four agenda and Vision 2030.

“The SGR has a total network of 592km between Mombasa, Nairobi and Naivasha. The SGR line has also led to the expansion of the Inland Container Depot (ICD) in Nairobi at Embakasi, and construction of the ICD — Naivasha at Mai Mahiu.”

The Kenya Railway Corporation said this has contributed to the decongestion of the seaport of Mombasa and facilitated seamless transit of goods destined to western Kenya and neighbouring countries.

It said since commencing operations of the Madaraka Express service in 2017, Kenya Railways has transported more than 5.4 million passengers and more than 1.3 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of cargo.

At Sh477 billion, the SGR is Kenya’s most expensive project since independence.

The country first spent Sh327 billion to build the Mombasa to Nairobi line in the first phase of the project, which was done by China Roads and Bridge Corporation (CRBC).

Excited with the prospects of the line, Kenya then added another Sh150 billion to extend the line by another 120km to Murtoto but ran out of funds after the Chinese government developed cold feet mid way and refused to finance the project beyond Naivasha, fearing that it would be another white elephant.

This left the Kenyan government in a major dilemma and had to come up with a stopgap plan, linking the line to the old metre-gauge line to Malaba.

The problem with this is that it ended up living several kilometres to rot in the bush.

The delay by Uganda and Tanzania in embracing the idea of a regional railway line developed by the same contractor using the Chinese standard has not helped unlock the funding.

The feasibility of the Nairobi Malaba line was dependent on Uganda buying in and allowing the Chinese contractor to extend the line to Kampala on its side.

Besides the Sh477 billion, the government has pumped in more money to build the ICDs both in Nairobi and Naivasha, bringing the cost of the infrastructure to more than Sh500 billion.

There is also interest on the loans given through the China Exim bank, which push the eventual cost of the line way past the Sh500 billion mark.

The SGR is President Uhuru Kenyatta’s pet project and he has personally gone out of his way to ensure his government delivers on this Jubilee Party’s election campaign promise.

When he launched the Madaraka Express passenger train service in May 2017, the head of state had already got wind of what vandals were up to.

President Kenyatta used the occasion to publicly warn vandals that if caught, he would not hesitate to sign off capital punishment if they did not keep their hands off the project.

The President warned vandals that he had powers to authorise the death penalty and that he would not hesitate if they did not keep off the project.

“The presidency gives me powers to authorise executions, and let me warn those who plan to vandalise the railway that I will sign that order and they will be hanged,” President Kenyatta told a gathering at the Miritini terminus.

“I normally prefer to pardon the guilty and have them serve life imprisonment sentences but the railway is a different matter. Those who will be sentenced for the destruction of public property, I want them to listen to me — God forgive me! — I will approve their hanging.”

President Kenyatta said while he had restrained himself in the past, this time the vandals would pay for their crimes.

“There is a law against the destruction of critical infrastructure — economic sabotage — and it is a capital offence,” the President explained. “And if you are convicted, you are sentenced to hang.

“There are those among us who don’t like to see things go well. They think if they want Uhuru, or the government, to look bad, you vandalise the railway or electricity infrastructure. I want to tell you: This railway is not mine. It is not Ruto’s. It is not the government’s. It has been built with money belonging to the 45 million Kenyans.

“This railway is Kenyans’.”

But these warnings appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

Section 343 of the Penal Code states that a person who damages the railway works, with an intent to endanger life or with the knowledge that it is likely to endanger life, is liable to imprisonment for life.

But it is the ending that has puzzled the villagers of Murtoto. Why didn’t the line end at the nearby town? Why terminate the railway in the bush and leave it to the mercy of vandals? Is this the second season of the Lunatic express?

The irony is that as the line is being vandalised on one end, construction of the metre gauge railway is ongoing a stone throw away from the crime scene.