Why SGR should ditch diesel for electric trains

A standard gauge railway train in Miritini. FILE PHOTO | NMG

What you need to know:

  • Signing of $240m deal with Chinese company paves the way for the upgrade of railway line in push to embrace clean energy

Kenya has embarked on the task of upgrading its newly-built standard gauge railway (SGR) line to electric status following the signing of a financing deal with a Chinese company.

The Kenya Electricity Transmission Company (Ketraco) signed the $240 million with China Electric Power Equipment and Technology Company on January 25, paving the way for work to begin.

The task is to convert the line from its current diesel-driven status to an electricity-driven line — enabling it to make a switch to use of clean energy.

About 14 power substations will be constructed to serve the Mombasa and Nairobi segment of the line which is expected to run through Uganda into Rwanda.

Ketraco’s task is to ensure reliable and sufficient supply of electricity not only for the train but also other facilities along the Mombasa-Nairobi economic belt such as train stations, factories and businesses near the railway. It is expected to create a market for major power consumers along the railway line and open other opportunities for the locals.

Technically, SGR is ready for the upgrade because though initially designed to run on diesel-powered locomotives, it allows addition of a single electric line that will be connected to Ketraco’s 482-km 400kV Mombasa-Nairobi transmission line.

The line, which is the longest and highest voltage transmission infrastructure in East Africa, has a transfer capacity of 1,500 megawatts, which is only 200 megawatts shy of the current national demand of 1,700 megawatts.

The line was constructed to address the challenges of low voltage, high transmission losses, unreliable supply, including strengthening of network security and the national grid system.

Its energisation, which President Uhuru Kenyatta commissioned last year, therefore debunks the myth that Kenya does not have a dependable source of electricity to power an electric train network.

A little history on electric trains would suffice. At the turn of the 20th century, diesel trains replaced steam engines as a cleaner and efficient means of transport for commuters and commodities.

Thereafter, engineers developed electric-diesel “hybrid” trains. With the advent of environmentally friendly wheeled vehicles in the 21st century, coupled with technological advancements in the field of energy production, Kenya will soon join the league of countries with electric trains motorised by clean energy sources.

The transport sector, in many parts of the world, presents real environmental challenge, and as a people, we have a duty to safeguard a more eco-friendly future. As we make long-term decisions that will affect the future of generations to come, it is prudent to consult accurate data.

In 2015, while addressing 150 Heads of States and Governments at the Conference of Parties (COP21) Global Climate Summit in Paris, Mr Kenyatta highlighted Kenya’s “introduction and management of low carbon and efficient transportation systems”.

He further noted that “greenhouse gas emissions have reached the threshold with the net effect of causing irreversible global warming”.

World Bank reports that “the Paris agreement targets require reducing transport-related emissions from the current 7.7 Gt (gigatons) CO2 (carbon dioxide) equivalent to 2–3 Gt CO2 by 2050.”

It further notes that currently “the entire transport sector — the mobility of people and transportation of goods — accounts for about 23 per cent of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels or 15 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Moving from a high to a low-carbon transport sector requires combining tested success strategies that focus on urban integrated multi-modal transport and transit systems.

A joint report by International Union of Railways and Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies, says travelling by rail is on average three to 10 times less CO2 intensive than road or air transport.

Rail transportation emits about 0.2 pounds of CO2 per passenger mile. This number is much lower than those of air transportation, PSVs and personal cars.

The Association of American Railroads report dubbed ‘Green from the Start’ indicates that “estimates have shown that if just 10 per cent of long-distance freight that is currently moving by truck were to be moved instead by diesel trains, the resulting carbon emission reduction would be the equivalent of taking two million cars off the road.”

In Kenya, the impact of changing from diesel trains to electric ones will be remarkable. This is because Ketraco is powering the line with geothermal electricity meaning SGR could run at zero CO2 emission.

This then calls for stronger partnerships amongst key players for the ultimate success of this project that will reduce the country’s carbon footprint.

Additionally, Kenya’s geographical position is quite unique and gives us great economic advantages and making it perfect for strategic partnerships that aim to improve its regional and global market share.

Kenya’s infrastructure, especially the SGR, is a gateway to the vibrant East and Central African region. It is of supreme significance to our economy and the economies of landlocked countries in East Africa, including Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan and Burundi.

Starting from the Mombasa port, the electric line will in the near future handle increased trade between Kenya and its East African counterparts, including the landlocked neighbours.

This is helped by the fact that “by 2030 Mombasa is expected to handle more than 30 million tonnes of cargo annually”.

This necessitates the electrification of the rail line that is a requisite for faster movement of bigger containers and passengers in the quest to boost EA’s competitiveness as an investment hub.

Finally, the electrification of SGR has had its fair share of criticism with opponents questioning its economic viability to the country.

It is, however, clear that in the long run, the benefits will far outstrip the costs of construction. This will range from a further reduction in transport/travel costs thanks to cheaper more reliable energy source to the creation of new jobs during the 28-month electrification phase.

Increased train speeds should double or triple the number of trips, opening access to rail transport for millions of Kenyans. Urbanisation along the SGR route cannot be ignored.

A faster more efficient transport system will cut costs of food transport and that will lead to reduced prices of commodities for the common mwananchi.

The regional growth expected in future due to the electrified line will significantly cut journey intervals between Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda for both goods and passengers. This will fortify ties between the countries creating a network of links between ports and cities in East Africa.

Mr Barasa is the managing director at Kenya Electricity Transmission Company and the immediate former chair of the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Kenya.

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