The government’s bet on a century-old technology now risks derailing the revival of railway transport even before it is fully rolled out.
Still very much in its pilot stage, the metre-gauge railway line from Nairobi to Nanyuki has suffered multiple mishaps, casting doubts over its long-term viability.
Barely a year after the line was revived, it has emerged that it's too old and too weak to operate optimally as envisioned during its rehabilitation.
Veteran staffers at Kenya Railways Corporation (KRC) have intimated that technical factors and the design of the Nanyuki line could hamper its operations.
“The rails are narrower and support less loads because it has lower poundage,” an employee of the corporation told Business Daily.
In just under six months, the train has derailed twice, stalled four times and caught fire once. In one of those incidents in January, passengers had to spend part of the night in the bushes, prompting Kenya Railways to dispatch buses to take them to their destinations.
The 177km railway line which cost taxpayers Sh3 billion was revived to increase cargo capacity and passenger transport while also bringing down costs.
Vivo Energy became the biggest beneficiary of the Nanyuki line, projecting to ferry five million litres of petroleum to its Nanyuki depot each month.
The company lost thousands of litres of fuel when a wagon derailed and crashed in Ragati, Nyeri County, on May 10.
The government seems to have bitten more than it could chew, as Kenya Railways appears not to have factored in what it would take to run the line, especially because it lacks the technical capacity to do so.
Moreover, KRC appears to have overlooked the fact that the line was not designed for present-day uses.
Until the early 1920s, the Nanyuki line terminated in Naromoru, Nyeri County. The colonial government was under pressure to build a new administrative centre in Nanyuki as the headquarters of the Northern Frontier District (NFD).
At the time, Nanyuki was emerging as the base for the third King’s African Rifles (KAR) battalion, which was training around Mt Kenya. It was argued that it would be economical if the KAR supply and transport depot was moved from Nairobi to Nanyuki.
In 1931, the Nanyuki railway station was opened with the main aim of ferrying soldiers and equipment to the NFD.
Interestingly, while the Nanyuki line is the same metre-gauge as the Nairobi-Malaba one and was partially built from parts left over from the Kenya-Uganda rail project, the stretch from Thika to Nanyuki was built differently.
Railway line's biggest user
It was built with rails that are considered to be weaker than those on the Nairobi-Malaba stretch. This limits the load that the line can handle, and the type of locomotive that can ride on it.
Theoretically, a metre-gauge line can only allow a load of 47kg per metre of rail. The standard-gauge line allows loads of 60kg per metre.
“Too much load will break the line, especially along the Thika-Nanyuki stretch. This means that we have to reduce the load at the Thika Station and Sagana,” a KRC employee said.
Moreover, trains on a metre-gauge line can only move at top speeds of 72km per hour. The time factor is also affected by the topography of the region, potentially dropping speeds to as low as 20km per hour.
On a normal day, the Nanyuki train will deliver between three and seven tank wagons of petroleum, a trip that takes between five and seven hours. Up to three such deliveries can be made a week.
Sometimes it has to detach a few wagons at Sagana to reduce the load due to the steep inclination between Sagana and Kiganjo
Although Vivo Energy has been the biggest user of the railway line so far, it’s still partially ferrying petroleum products by road to its Nanyuki depot.
Besides the old railway line, KRC also depends on old diesel locomotives, 50-plus years old. The Nation has learnt that the locomotives used on the Nanyuki line were bought between the 1970s and 1990s.
KRC has also found itself without staff who know how to operate its railway lines. It had to recall retired workers to run operations on the line. They were needed because of their mastery of old rail technology, maps, topography and operations.
In fact, only five train drivers can operate on the Nanyuki line.
Considering all this, the prospects of success for the line remain bleak. Freight transport remains the main earner for KRC on the Nanyuki line, but it’s still unable to attract more transporters. The existence of industrial centres like Sagana, Karatina, Kiganjo, Chaka and Nanyuki is promising but the rail technology is failing.
Last month, the corporation announced resumption of livestock transport but it’s yet to attract customers, and only one shipment has been ferried so far.
Its commuter train has also been hampered by poor functionality. Since it was introduced in December 2020, the number of passengers has been dropping due to scheduling factors and its susceptibility to stalling.
A passenger train takes between seven and 10 hours from Nanyuki to Nairobi. A matatu takes three hours.
Business Daily reached out to KRC officials for comment but calls and text messages to Managing Director Philip Mainga went unanswered. An interview with the MD scheduled for last Friday never materialised.
In a few weeks, President Kenyatta is expected to open the Chaka Railway Station and commission rail transport to Nanyuki. But the question remains: will a century-old technology withstand modern-day economic needs, and for how long?