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Return of western Kenya trains signals transport shake-up

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Casual workers cleaning a section of Nakuru-Kisumu railway. FILE PHOTO | NMG

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Summary

  • Passenger train services will follow cargo services upon completion of the 23.5 kilometre new link from Naivasha to Longonot and rehabilitation of old rail track from Nakuru to Malaba.
  • Construction and rehabilitation works started last year and are set for completion in six months, setting the stage for passengers to combine the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) and the metered gauge railway.
  • The return of the services that collapsed in 1980s will, however disrupt businesses for buses and matatus that have enjoyed an unrivaled dominance, hiking fares at will during the peak seasons.

In September, residents and businesses from the western parts of Kenya will start enjoying cargo and passenger train services in what looks set to turn around travel options and hit booming matatu and bus businesses.

Passenger train services will follow cargo services upon completion of the 23.5 kilometre new link from Naivasha to Longonot and rehabilitation of old rail track from Nakuru to Malaba.

Construction and rehabilitation works started last year and are set for completion in six months, setting the stage for passengers to combine the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) and the metered gauge railway for the journey from the Coastal city of Mombasa to Kisumu and Malaba.

For a project costing the taxpayer some Sh10 billion, Kenya Railways reckons that this will be a game-changer for Kenyans travelling between Mombasa, Kisumu, the border town of Malaba and tens of small towns where stations will be built.

The return of the services that collapsed in 1980s will, however disrupt businesses for buses and matatus that have enjoyed an unrivaled dominance, hiking fares at will during the peak seasons when demand is at fever-high as Kenyans travel home.

Long distance buses like Simba Coach, Easy Coach and Guardian and 14-seater shuttles have for years enjoyed booming business ferrying people to western Kenya, especially during Easter and Christmas festivities, closure and re-opening of schools.

The transport firms charge between Sh1,200 and Sh1,500 when demand is low but increase the fares to as high as Sh2,500 during peak seasons.

Kenya Railways did not disclose the fares that passengers will pay to travel from Mombasa to Kisumu and Malaba but said that they will be affordable.

“The plan is to make movement of passengers between the towns easy. We also plan to target peasant farmers along the route and this means our fare must be minimal for now,” Kenya Railways Corporation managing director Philip Mainga said.

It is the tale of a loss for matatus and buses but win for persons who will be travelling to and from the western parts of Kenya.

With a capacity of up to 1,600 passengers on a single trip, the train that will depart Mai Mahiu in the morning to arrive in Malaba in the evening is expected to displace buses and matatus along the routes.

Proposed stations on the route that will cut through Rift Valley and end at Malaba include Menengai, Visoi, Sabatia, Maji Mazuri, Makutano, Equator, Timboria, Tumeiyo, Kaptagat, Plateau, Eldoret, Turbo, Webuye, Bungoma and Malaba.

Cargo trains on the Mai-Mahiu to Longonot will start operating in June as the service targets transporting goods such as fertiliser and cereals to and from the food basket of western Kenya.

For some a long time , cargo owners in western Kenya have shunned rail transport in favour of roads.

Traders attributed the trend on unreliable rail services between Nairobi and Kisumu and improved roads connecting the two locations.

Key roads such as the Nairobi-Nakuru and Kericho-Mau Summit-Kisumu have been undergoing major reconstruction and expansion, making it easier and faster for users.

Rail shipment on the other hand has for many years been constrained by the nature of the railway line between Nairobi and Kisumu. Goods have had to be transshipped at Nakuru because the track that is currently undergoing refurbishment could not support main-line wagons. It could only sustain six wagons at a time.

Rail cargo transport, however, remained vibrant between Mombasa and Nairobi with statistics showing that the Kenya Ports Authority(KPA) inland container depot in Embakasi has stayed busy.

For instance, in 2019 the depot handled 418,830 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) of cargo—cementing an impressive trend of increments over five years. The Nairobi ICD handled 29,103 TUEs of cargo 2015. The Nairobi depot and another in Kisumu are critical in easing congestion around the port of Mombasa because traders can move their cargo there as they await shipment to various destinations.

The facility in Kisumu, however remained idle for years. For example, in 2014, the container depot located in Kisumu’s Kibos only handled 74 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU), about 176 per cent drop from the previous year’s 204 TEUs.

With the railway rehabilitation and subsequent return of passenger and cargo train to the region, sleepy towns along thel line are expected to come back to life through the establishment of facilities to offer social amenities like food and accommodation.

Already, the SGR is slowly breathing life into the Duka Moja (literally meaning “one shop”), a sleepy trading centre on the Maai Mahiu-Narok road, about 20 kilometres from Suswa.

The rail line that cost $3.2 billion (Sh355 billion) from the Port of Mombasa to Nairobi and a further $1.5 billion (Sh166 billion) to extend to Naivasha, all through Chinese loans is finally taking shape and with it, travellers and business people to Western Kenya stand to benefit.

Question marks on its viability, however persist as revenues trail operating costs but linking the line to Western Kenya may be the first in a long journey to address the questions.

The restart of train services to western Kenya is expected to compliment the port of Kisumu that is currently undergoing expansion.

Until recently, the Kisumu port had for close to three decades been hit by a number of factors, including a dilapidated railway infrastructure and impassable and persistent invasion water hyacinth as well as boundary disputes that have turned the fresh water lake into a liability.

In its hey days, the port registered vigorous business activity helped by a reliable railway system and maritime vessels that ferried cargo to ports such as Mwanza and Bukoba in Tanzania and Jinja and Port Bell in Uganda.

The government has since begun a Sh3.7 billion rehabilitation of the old railway line from Nakuru to Kisumu, a project being handled by the Kenya Defence Force in partnership with the Kenya Railways Corporation.

The Kisumu port has also undergone major upgrade, with work including concreting of the port yard, construction of the quayside, repairs of the linkspan, revamping the dry dock and rehabilitation of all buildings to boost efficiency.

All roads within and the link roads to the port facility have also been repaired and feeder jetties and piers are also being put in place. The port has further been equipped with equipment such as forklift trucks, mobile cranes and tractor-trailers.

The revamp is already yielding result as wi fatnessed in 2019 due to improved efficiency and a surge in trade. The volume of cargo handled jumped to 17,735 tonnes, a 62 per cent increase compared to 2018.

The rise in cargo was buoyed by a strong second-half performance, reflecting better efficiency and an overall improvement in trade among partner states of the East Africa Community (EAC). The number of vessels utilising the port also increased to 41 in 2019 compared to 19 the previous year, representing a 116 per cent jump.

The refurbishment of the facility in Kisumu as well as planned repair and upgrade of satellite piers in Mbita, Homa Bay and Luanda K’otieno is projected to further improve merchandise trade in the region.

Prior to the collapse of the lake transport system, Homa Bay was a main shipping point for goods to neighbouring Tanzania. Vessels from Kisumu docked in Homa Bay and offloaded cargo which was then transported by truck to the Tanzanian border two hours away.