SGR trains defy challenges to ferry over a million passengers and cargo

President Uhuru kenyatta flags off cargo during the SGR Cargo train launch at Mombasa Port on Tuesday 30/05/2017. [photo/Boniface Okendo/Standard]

About 1.3 million passengers have commuted on Standard Gauge Railway trains since the project was launched a year ago.

Over 600,000 tonnes of cargo have been hauled between Mombasa and Nairobi in the same period.

Wednesday marks the first-year anniversary since President Uhuru Kenyatta flagged off the inaugural cargo train from the port of Mombasa.

After launching SGR, Uhuru rode on the first passenger train, Madaraka Express, the following day to Nairobi. The twin events marked the first phase of the ambitious infrastructure project.

It took Sh300 billion and specialised manpower to actualise one of the President’s signature projects. Government agencies burnt the midnight oil pondering the herculean task of laying a modern railway line on a tight timeline.

Economic viability

Sceptics were wary of the economic viability of the project, saying the money would have been better utilised elsewhere.

There are plans to scale up the passenger service. In the last year, there have been 10 cargo and four passenger trains using the new line daily.

As of May 22, the new railway had hauled 608,123 tonnes of cargo in 114,495 twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEUs). The cargo includes 525,145 tonnes from Mombasa and 82,978 tonnes from Nairobi.

Each freight train can haul 4,000 tonnes (108 TEUs) on 54 wagons with a designed speed of 80 km per hour.

Atanas Maina, the Kenya Railways managing director, said the statistics should convince doubting Thomases about the viability of the new line.

“The new railway is a catalyst for growth, not only in Kenya but in the region. It must accomplish the economic aspirations of Kenyanse, especially the country’s development blueprint, Vision 2030. It is a key cog in the future transformation of Kenya to a middle-income status,” Mr Maina said.

The new train service is able to bring hundreds of containers to Nairobi’s Internal Container Depot (ICD), but players in the clearing and forwarding sector have complained that inefficiencies at the Kenya Ports Authority affect quick cargo delivery.

William Ojonyo, the chairman of the Kenya International Freight and Warehousing Association (Kifwa), said members were getting frustrated due to delays in clearing cargo in Nairobi.

“You have a situation where about 400 containers are getting to the port every day, but the rate of evacuating them is very slow. Imagine trying to locate your container in such a mass of cargo. Our efforts to speak to the KPA management have not borne any results,” he said.

The Government recently upgraded the ICD to handle 450,000 containers from an annual capacity of 180,000 containers.

To get more players in the cargo industry to use the new line, the President directed that the concessionary rates be extended to December 31, 2018.

On January 5, Kenya Railways introduced promotional tariffs that saw customers pay Sh25,000 to transport a 20-foot container and Sh30,000 for a 40-foot one from Mombasa to Nairobi.

Transporting a loaded 20 and 40-foot container from Nairobi to Mombasa costs Sh15,000 and Sh20,000 respectively.

Kenya Railways has entered into an agreement with Singapore-based Pacific International Lines (PIL) Kenya that will see the firm evacuate cargo using the new railway line.

With the completion of the first phase of the train service, attention now shifts to the improvement of supporting infrastructure.

In the last one year, Kenyans using the main line have complained that key amenities such as food service were missing in the stations. Passengers spend about two hours at the stations waiting for the train.

In addition, some operating staff cannot communicate in English, thereby compromising service delivery. Connection between the Mombasa terminus in Miritini and the town’s CBD is a challenge due to the ongoing road construction that causes traffic jams as well as the ongoing rains that have rendered feeder roads impassable.

Initial timelines

According to railway authorities, however, Kenyans ought to take note of the fact that the service started a year-and-a-half ahead of schedule, meaning that they are within the initial timelines in which to finalise the remaining works along the line.

“We intend to set up cafés in our stations, like the ones you find in our airports, to increase guest experience. Currently, the stations are just holding grounds for passengers. We are also setting up first class lounges in the two main stations in addition to other amenities such as vehicle parking enhancements,” Maina said.

A Kenya Railways statement said a number of improvements had been made, especially in passenger ticketing. These include increasing the booking window from three days prior to travel to 30 days for the public and 32 days for groups and corporates. “We have improved from having no names on the tickets to having names captured."

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