Covid-19 aftershocks have been felt across the transportation sector. The pressure on transport operators has shifted from moving citizens to keeping a core transportation system operational with a skeleton workforce to ensure freight and key essential workers continue to move.
A March 2020 report by Deloitte titled ‘Understanding Covid-19’s impact on the transportation sector’ says that countries, especially road-connected ones, are adopting measures to ensure trade continues and goods reach their destinations, minimising the impacts on all supply chains.
The EU, for example, recommends its Member States to facilitate the use of passenger aircraft for cargo-only operations and to temporarily remove, or apply flexibly, night curfews or slot restrictions at airports for essential air cargo operations.
Closer home, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Regional Transport Transit Facilitation Cell (RTTFC) has drafted its short-term action plan, ensuring that food and basic items reach those most in need.
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Taking cognisance of the need to ensure uninterrupted operations during the cessation of movement embargo, Africa Star Railway Operation Company (Afristar), the operator of the Standard Gauge Railway, has continued to operate the SGR freight services normally, buoyed by the increased inflow of Covid-19 supplies.
This has been achieved through the deployment of transport, locomotive, rolling stock, track and signalling staff to work during the pandemic period. By June 30, 2020, the company had transported over 196,000 twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEUs); these include 4633 TEUs of dangerous goods, 4224 TEUs of grain and 86 TEUs of essential Covid-19 prevention materials such as disinfectants, ethyl and alcohol.
In June, 422 freight trains were operated between Mombasa and Nairobi, with an average 14 freight trains a day, transporting 34,688 TEUs, a total of 382,227 tons.
In response to government requirements on SGR Phase 2A, Afristar has operated 52 freight trains to the Naivasha ICD transporting 2494 TEUs destined for Uganda and other East African countries. This has played a role in mitigating the spread of Covid-19 through road transport, underscoring the advantages of rail transport over trucking.
Compared to road transport, Madaraka Express is more environmentally friendly. It is possible to transport huge shipments at once at relatively low costs. In addition, Madaraka Express freight transport is well-organised with fixed timetables, which give accurate rail freight tariffs. It is also not subject to delays and is the safest way of transporting goods. Moreover, rail transport can lower greenhouse gas emissions by 75 per cent.
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Madaraka Express freight service particularly comes in handy when looking for high-speed delivery over long distances, shipping large quantities in bulk, or shipping inland from a port. Raw materials such as coal and iron ore are also best transported by Madaraka Express freight service, as it uses three times less fuel than road transport. But the singular biggest advantage of the Madaraka Express freight service is that once the trains are loaded at the port, the next destination is Nairobi ICD or the newly opened Naivasha ICD.
That notwithstanding, the role of truckers cannot be gainsaid. Truck drivers haul food, gas, raw materials, and finished goods everywhere in the country and into neighbouring countries.
None other than the Transport Cabinet Secretary has admitted that the tonnage of goods evacuated from the port of Mombasa by road is traditionally higher than the cargo evacuated by the SGR freight service. It is therefore imperative that the trucking industry deploys robust trucking and other technological advancements to help it increase efficiency and safety for drivers.
The last four months have seen a steep rise in the number of bulk goods transported on Madaraka Express as opposed to trucking. Due to containment measures, truckers must undergo mandatory Covid-19 checkups before proceeding on their journeys. This requirement has been a major contributing factor to delays being experienced.
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But for greater efficiency, there is a need for complementarity between Madaraka Express and the trucking industry. Notably, the latter can leverage last-mile transportation by re-engineering their business to take advantage of the integrated transport system spearheaded by the SGR.
It is noteworthy that the integration of the port and the SGR is a multi-modal transport system that will have far-reaching economic benefits to the country and the states that depend on the Port of Mombasa.
-Ms Munyao is a Communications Advisor, Afristar