Tale of metre-gauge railway townships reeling in neglect

Old Cargo train at the new Nairobi South Railway Station, Section 8, Syokimau. (Elvis Ogina, Standard)
The business of the Kenya-Uganda railway built in 1890s, that profoundly impacted on the economy, is depreciating.

Some of the old men, who used to work and use the railway line, say it improved economic power of the nation, opened up towns and boosted trade with neighbouring countries. However, this is slowly fading with the introduction of the Standard-Gauge Railway (SGR).

For instance, the little known town of Kima, which lies along the historic railway at the boarder of Makueni and Kajiado counties, is among towns that are slowly dying.

Tens of stations stretching between Nairobi and Mombasa have been neglected, structures vandalised, and only old buildings with elaborate architectural designs stand out.

The impressive third class coach train waiting bays are still intact, with strong, durable chairs. The bays saw their last commuter trains depart before May 2018. The fast-spreading bushes are almost taking over.

Moses, not his real name, a man who sought anonymity as he is not authorised to speak to the media on behalf of his employer, the Rift Valley Railways (RVR) and who is one among few line inspection managers situated at one of the old stations, said the management of RVR laid off most of the employees after the introduction of SGR, which paralysed operations of the old railway line.

Cut down work force

“Towns that were situated along the line are now dying slowly due to lack of or reduced businesses. When the passenger trains were withdrawn, with most of the containers being ferried on the new line, the management cut down the work force,” said Moses.

A 10-kilometre distance is under inspection of one person and this has led to poor maintenance of the rails, hence reduction of the locomotives speed from 70km/h to about 15km/h.

“When we used to have enough workforce, the rails were managed well. The trains would have a speed of about 70km/h, but now they are travelling at about 15km/h and sometimes the cargo trains are forced to stop along the way due to poor rail, which hinder movement,” he added.

Before, two teams managed a 10-km track distance, but reduction in workforce has led to poor maintenance, hence derailment is very likely, Moses explains.

At the entry and exit points, the work of giving line clearance has been replaced by self-normalisation of the main and second line. This was initially done under the supervision of a station manger, a position that has since been scrapped.

Although most stations have police officers on patrol, some have been turned into havens for the social recluse, where people come to have a glimpse of the stations’ old writings and stunning design, while others have been invaded by the homeless.

At other stations, such as Kalembwani, Kiu, Ulu, Konza and Kapiti Plains, it’s very easy for one to tell how spectacular these stations were, with strong immovable windows, although it appears most of the buildings have been wrecked, with joints at the railroad track showing signs of decay.

“I used to transport hot pepper, cow peas and vegetables to Kongowea in Mombasa, but I have been forced to stop that business. I’m jobless and the business is no longer feasible,” said Joseph Mutua. Most say economic value of the gauge-metre line is lost.

Alfayo Otuke, the immediate former executive officer at the Kenya Transporters Association (KTA), and now the Group CEO at Safety Plus Consulting, observed that more value can be added to the SGR by exploring two options.

First, a question should be put in the coming referendum to devolve  the metre-gauge railway to counties to effectively manage the public transport system as assigned by the Constitution 2010.

Compensate

He added: “Under the county function part 5, d, road public transport is a function of counties, but on the fourth schedule 18, d, railways management is indicated as a national government function.  But this can be altered through referendum to allow counties to form consortiums, like the eastern and the western consortiums for instance, all lying within Kenya”.

Through this move, counties like Kajiado, where Magadi soda is mined, will benefit a lot and also create job opportunities.

Secondly, Otuke, who was also a member of the SGR freight service implementation committee, proposes that the government should compensate those whose land were acquired to construct the old railway line.

“Let everybody who gave land over 100 years ago be compensated, then the land be later sub-divided to landless Kenyans in these counties, where the line snakes through”, he added.

Otuke who also serves as a director at Global Maritime, states that even though the SGR line isn’t economical, re-introduction of either commuter trains in the old line or additional cargo trains can’t be a solution.

The Global Maritime director argued that the construction of the SGR to the ships docking point in Mombasa has been allowing direct loading of cargo from the ships, leaving the cargo trains on the latter line with only one option - transporting cargo from areas that the SGR doesn’t reach, which is minimal bulk.

He described the decision by the government to construct the SGR as taking from the left hand and giving it to the right one.

“Along the metre-gauge line, there is an allowance of 30 metres and much land owned by Kenya Railways running from Mombasa to Nairobi, the government didn’t consider building the line on that already acquired land to avoid extinction of towns along the line and to make it cost-effective,” he said.

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Standard-Gauge RailwaySGRKenya Railways