It is 2.30pm and passengers are rushing to the departure area, some almost tripping at the security checkpoint. They are almost late for the afternoon ride.
About four minutes and 50 seconds later, the doors to the coaches are shut and a quick announcement made. At exactly 2.35pm, the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) train rolls off from the Nairobi terminus towards Mombasa.
“Time is of the essence and we don’t waste even a second. We do not want to inconvenience our clients. This express train will arrive in Mombasa at 7.18pm,” says Winnie Onduru, a passenger steward.
But a few kilometres away at the Inland Container Depot (ICD) in Embakasi, a cargo train is leaving for Mombasa with empty containers, and the delegation in this tour seems displeased by this.
“Why is it empty? Does it mean we have nothing to offer to the world and all we do is ferry imports from the Port of Mombasa?” asks Lindsay Kiptiness, the Deputy Director for Asia and Australasia Directorate at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Senior Secretary in charge of freight management at ICD, Faith Musyoki, responds humbly that it is not always that the containers go to the port empty, but she admits a huge imbalance between what comes in and goes out.
However, she quickly adds that it is not her onus to talk about what is brought in and what is ferried to Port Reiz – the cargo train station – for onward shipping to the export market.
“Our company’s responsibility is to transfer containers to Nairobi in the fastest way possible, deliver them to ICD to be unloaded and further handled by KPA. Export containers are loaded at the ICD to be transported to Port Reitz for shipping,” says Musyoki.
Nonetheless, it is a question in most people’s lips. Other than the efficient passenger service from the capital to the port city, is Kenya making any gains from the SGR project? Is it worth the investment?
But Dr Charles Nzai, a lecturer at Kenyatta University’s Department of Economics, says it is premature to ask this question.
He says the country first needs to increase its manufacturing capacity so that there are more finished products to export and improve the balance of trade between Kenya and her partners.
“Our manufacturing capacity is still very low. Let us first build that capacity and develop the SGR track all the way to Malaba border. That is when we shall clearly see the benefit of this great project,” says Dr Nzai.
Sino-Africa scholar Cavince Adhere, on the other hand, believes that infrastructure projects must not necessarily be of direct financial benefit to a country.
“Does the country earn directly from the Thika Superhighway, for instance? That SGR opens up the country for efficient transit system and international trade is enough testimony that this is a great project worth the investment,” says Adhere.
He says the SGR has the potential to reboot and accelerate economic activities along its corridor, while acting as a linchpin for regional integration.
Musyoki says since the relaunch of the depot more than a year ago, the SGR has transported 4,435 cargo trains, and since the second half of 2018, about 891 wagons of loose cargo, including grains, steel coils, pallets and fertiliser, have been ferried.
“We started with only one cargo train per day in December 2017 and have gradually scaled up to an average of 13 cargo trains one way in the second half of 2018. During peak season, we can do up to 30 trains both ways per day,” she says.
Since it started operations on June 1, 2017, the Madaraka Express has transported at least 2.5 million passengers and cargo amounting to 3.68 million tonnes.
The charge d’affaires at the Chinese Embassy in Nairobi, Li Xuhang, says the SGR is the “crystallisation of China-Kenya cooperation”.
He says his country attaches great importance to Kenyan employees and is doing its best to help them completely master the skills so that the project can be handed over to Kenya in 2027.
“The integrated benefits of SGR to Kenya’s economy are becoming more obvious… tourism has turned to be one of the industries befitting most. We have every reason to believe that SGR will strongly boost the GDP growth of Kenya,” says Li.