February 21st 2018

Business / Economy

Comparing SGR with Ethiopian, Moroccan rail lines misses the point

Seeing that the SGR will average a speed of 120km/h, this translates to approximately 4.5hrs from Nairobi to Mombasa. This is quite commendable considering the trip currently takes almost 8hrs by road.

By Malik Mureumalikmureu@gmail.comFriday, 17 Feb 2017 10:32 EAT

Map of Kenya showing elevation.

I shall attempt a lay man’s understanding of projects and project implementation with Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway in mind. The SGR is a Vision 2030 flagship project and was planned to open up Kenya’s interior through the construction of mega infrastructure projects such as highways, railways, airports and pipelines.

The Vision 2030 dream was mooted during President Kibaki’s tenure where experts came into concurrence that the only way to spread equity and development across the country was through investments in mega projects which would not only attract income to the national kitty but enable the growth of satellite cities and towns across the country. Their thinking was based on the history of emergence of trade hubs which become towns and later cities. In the history of mankind, the need for exchange of goods and services has been behind the growth of trading centers.

In the 17th century Europe, trading centers emerged as the railway was built out of the need for restocking of firewood, coal and later on diesel for the trains. These centers attracted many other value laden services such as hotels, restaurants, health centers, tailors, cobblers, labourers and entertainment businesses.

Later on, out of the need for law and order, the government opened offices to offer services to the inhabitants. The resultant effects are that the populations grew leading to the establishment of amenities like schools and hospitals. Land around that area rose in value, market for livestock and farm produce grew, and in general the quality of life of the citizens improved tremendously. In short, civilization and its attendant goodies expanded.

Back in Kenya, the dreamers of the Vision 2030 knew there was no silver bullet to fight inequity in development across the country. They thus crafted a national aspiration that when realized a semblance of equity shall have been achieved. Kenya’s neighbours Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and South Sudan also undertook construction of new railway infrastructure for the region. The SGR project was envisioned to have a big impact on the region's transport scene by enhancing connectivity, significantly contribute to economic development, industrialization and international competitiveness.

The SGR is to run from Mombasa to Malaba via Naivasha and Kisumu and as I write it has already reached Nairobi with preparations in place for the Nairobi-Naivasha phase. At Naivasha and Kisumu there shall be inland depots. As envisioned, the SGR has already contributed immensely to the rural economies along the railway line. The government set a rule that 40 percent of all materials used in the construction of the railway shall be locally sourced. This alone has had immediate and visible effects with trading centers along the route and inwards receiving a much needed boost.

The government also required the Chinese contractor to source unskilled labour from the local communities along the railway line and inwards. The contemporary figure of direct beneficiaries of this stands at 40,000 Kenyans which translates to a minimum of two million indirect beneficiaries. There has been a steady growth of eateries and entertainment spots, hardware shops, clinics, clothing stores etc. When the railway becomes operational in June, the benefits accruing shall multiply tenfold. With the millions of passengers making stops along the railway, businesses such as hotels, entertainment spots, markets, shall grow tremendously.

The sales of fruits, water and other refreshments during the quick stops shall boost the local economies. In the larger scheme of things, produce from these localities shall attract better prices since transportation shall have improved. There shall be new markets for new products which will readily available from other parts of the country.

However with all public expenditure there comes inquiry of whether the funds spent were well utilized. The SGR is no exception and a lot has been questioned on the source of the funding, the issuing of the tender, the high cost of the railway and corruption. Critics have attempted to compare the SGR with the Ethiopian and Moroccan railway citing inflated costs, low rail speeds and delay in construction. Whereas some observation may be true, the rest is driven by uninformed motive.

The Kenyan political landscape unlike the Ethiopian one is very acrimonious.  A project of this magnitude is influenced by the political government of the day. You cannot rule out politics and thus a lot of the attacks on the SGR are politically motivated. Some delays are as a result of the contractors and government facing politically motivated opposition including court cases which end up escalating the cost of the project while delaying it.

The terrain of the SGR rises from an altitude of 500m at the coast to over 1700 by the time it is leaving Nairobi. This means the gradient of the rail line directly affects the cost and construction time with some parts of the route requiring tunneling to maintain viability. In Morocco, the line they built along the coastal area never rose beyond 600 altitude meaning the ground was almost flat all the way.

The SGR has met a lot of opposition including from animal rights defenders when it was realized it had to cut through protected wildlife areas. A case was lodged at the courts stalling the construction for many valuable weeks. In the end the line had to be modified to accommodate wildlife crossing areas and herders routes. These directly escalated costs and the delays meant we were paying for work that was not being done.

Unlike Ethiopia where land is government owned, the Kenyan SGR cuts through a lot of private property thus the mandatory acquisition poses myriad of problems to the contractor. Some private citizens have instituted court proceedings against the contractor while some have refused the market rate compensation offered by the government. This has not only delayed the construction but pushed the costs higher both in legal fees and compensation.

The argument on train speeds holds no water because as mentioned earlier, the SGR was part of the vision 2030 mega projects that was meant to open up the interior and improve the livelihoods of the people. This means that the various stops along the routes have been designed with enhancing opportunities of the locals in mind. How would they ever have their produce ferried with bullet trains? How would they ever enjoy the train if it never stops near them? Seeing that the SGR will average a speed of 120km/h, this translates to approximately 4.5hrs from Nairobi to Mombasa. This is quite commendable considering the trip currently takes almost 8hrs by road.

The SGR will decongest the ports, lower road accidents, open up the interior, avail employment opportunities, boost the economy, attract foreign and local investments, rejuvenate rural livelihoods and it shall boost tourism. This is our Kenyan pride and despite the hurdles it shall remain a national treasure.

The writer is an MA Communication student at the University of Nairobi

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