Experts: Why upgrade of metre gauge railway is coming a little too late

Standard Gauge Railway Terminus in Nairobi. PHOTO/WILBERFORCE OKWIRI

Shortly before Kenya embarked on construction of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), the country’s costliest infrastructure project, some local experts had warned against it.

One of the veterans, retired locomotive engineer Kariuki Kimiti, recalled how he had tried to convince the government to refurbish the old meter gauge railway.

If Kenya had heeded to Kimiti’s proposal, the rehabilitation of the old line from Mombasa to Malaba would have cost about Sh100 billion.

Kimiti says he strongly advised former Transport CS Michael Kamau against signing the SGR deal but he was ignored.

“I wrote to Kamau and gave him my calculations. He listened but still went ahead with the SGR. At one time, Kenya was toying with the idea of electrifying the railway but I told them that this would not be viable because we don’t have sufficient electricity,” he says.

He tells the Sunday Standard that it would have cost an additional Sh100 billion to lease 5,000 wagons and 200 locomotives for a period of four years.

According to Kimiti, who used to work at Kenya Railways as a locomotive engineer and driver, another Sh100 billion would have been adequate to rehabilitate the communication and signaling as well as hiring staff and changing trailers into wagons.

Locomotive inspector

“To make the main line from Mombasa to Malaba run smoothly, the rusty steel sleepers will have to be replaced with concrete ones, which would be cheaper than using wood,” he says.

“We only need to aggregate the trucks because most of the rails still attached to the steel sleepers are suitable for running trains.”

According to Kimiti, what needs to be replaced are curves where there is more friction.

He faults the government for investing too much money on building railway stations such as Makadara, Syokimau and Imara Daima instead of buying more commuter trains.

Hamdan Harub Bakheit, a veteran locomotive inspector, says the rehabilitation of the meter gauge railway is coming a little bit too late.

He says if Kenya Railways had opted for upgrading the meter gauge railway from the start, it would have saved 30 per cent of the cost as landowners would not be compensated.

He says to have a seamless transition of the SGR at Duka Moja in Naivasha where it is terminating and link it to MGR, a new rail will have to be laid for 43km.

Bakheit estimates that this would cost about Sh6 billion, but warns that unless the MGR from Naivasha to Malaba is rehabilitated, the trains can only achieve a maximum speed of 300km per hour. He says since Kenya’s side of the railway is heavier and accommodates heavier trains with bigger cargo capacity, goods destined to Uganda will have to be kept at an inland depot before they are reloaded. “That is why Kenya has to create an inland container deport at Naivasha and provide land to President Yoweri Museveni to keep his goods before they are reloaded to trains,” Bakheit says.

He says a train with a cargo weighing 1000 tonnes has to be broken down into four smaller trains for onward transmission to Uganda, which normally costs more time and money in terms of demurrage.