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The tale of two railways that carved up the nation at great taxpayer expense

By Daniel Wesangula | January 10th 2021 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

The old Steam locomotive train [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

One does not have to look far to spot the scars of our colonial legacy that dot the land.

There are reminders at every corner: from the names of our children and our streets; the foreign domination at the Nairobi Securities Exchange; the erosion of our culture and our infatuation with all things foreign.

More than a century after the nation found itself under the calloused thumb of the British Empire, we are still struggling to step out of the long shadow of colonialism.

The Kenya-Uganda Railway is one enduring legacy from the past that is still controversial.

And just as its builders used it to plunder the hinterland, so too have our present-day masters used it for personal gain.

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The railway remains a relic of its time; its modern sibling, the Standard Gauge Railway, is a reminder of broken dreams, poor policy and the carving of a nation for the benefit of an elite few in an eerie return to pre-colonial days.

It represents the good that the country once aspired to achieve, and how far it has fallen; both a gift and a curse.

The decision to build the metre-gauge railway was not unanimous. There was resistance from British Members of Parliament, and even nature appeared to conspire against the project.

Five years after the project was first mooted, not much had been done. Conversations in the British Parliament reveal how desperate the situation was.

On April 30, 1900, Foreign Affairs Undersecretary of State William Brodrick made a presentation in the House.

It had been five years since George Whitehouse, an engineer tasked by the Empire to build the railway, sailed into Mombasa with only a sketch of the proposed route. The piece of paper charted a 1,000-kilometre route that, if successful, would become one of the biggest feats of engineering by the British.

Whitehouse and his labour force had managed to lay 737 kilometres of railway.

On that April day, however, the reality of the magnitude of the project began to sink in. The biggest headache was the ballooning budget.

“Many circumstances in the course of five years have occurred which have greatly affected the cost of constructing this railway, and to a greater extent than usually affects undertakings of this character,” Mr Brodrick told Parliament.

Working blind

“The committee must also recollect that the original estimates, upon which all parties were agreed and when upon a unanimous resolution of the House the Uganda Railway began, were, as compared with other undertakings similar in character, necessarily very imperfect, because over 580 miles of the distance to be traversed had not been surveyed.”

There lay the first challenge. The engineers were practically working blind with no idea of the topography to be cut through to build the railway.

But while lack of survey was an important factor in the ballooning costs, it was not the main cause of the price variance.

In their initial projections, engineers had underestimated their bill of quantities. For instance, earlier surveys had been made during the dry season with little thought given to what the route would look like when it rained.

When Whitehouse arrived, things were different. What looked like streams had swollen into flooded rivers, and ground that had seemed firm was transformed into marshland.

“On that point alone there has been a large increase in cost due to the necessity of building satisfactory bridges,” Brodrick told Pariament. “The original intention was to carry out the plan adopted upon some lines in America—that of building temporary timber bridges, followed by iron work when the line was in operation. That, again, was found to be a mistake, and it was held to be desirable to build substantial bridges throughout the whole length of the line. The change in the difference between a completed and an unfinished line has been faced, and accounts for a considerable part of the additional cost.”

Labour costs, too, further pushed up costs. At conception, it was estimated that the bulk of the labour force would be drawn from local communities disrupted by the railway. Five years later, this proved to be a fallacy.

Out of the 16,000 men involved in the construction, 14,000 were from India. Only 2,000 African labourers were involved, and they were paid one-fourteenth of what the Indians earned.

Funds exhausted

It had been estimated that the 933-km railway would cost about £5,500 (Sh791,398 at current exchange rate) for every 1.6 kilometres. Parliament was initially asked for £3.02 million (Sh432 million). But the funds were exhausted after five years, forcing the responsible ministers to ask Parliament for more money.

“We ask for a further sum of £1.93 million (Sh276 million) for the completion of the railway. This makes £4.95 million (Sh708 million),” Brodrick said.

By the time the railway was opened to traffic, 582 kilometres had been done. After much blood, sweat and tears, the project was finally completed.

And 100 years later, the Kenyan Government embarked on a project similar to what the colonial government had painfully executed. In its attempt to recreate history, hard-learned lessons were forgotten and the new project soon faced serious problems.

Critics have said these errors of omission and commission in building the Standard Gauge Railway, which risks turning into a white elephant, were deliberate.

A train driver aboard the Diesel Multiple Units (DMU) during the unveiling of the refurbished Nairobi Central Railway Station. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

A journey back in time shows how, just like the initial idea of the railway, the real benefits would not be felt by the masses, but rather by the contractors and concessionaires.

First, both projects were shrouded in disinformation from the start. In 1895, legislators opposed to the building of the railway such as MP Henry Labouchere cautioned against the ballooning costs of the project.

“I contend and have contended for several years that this railroad would cost a great deal more than the £3 million estimated, and whenever I did this, the right Hon. Gentleman jeered and laughed at me, and told me that the Foreign Office understood railroads better than I did,” Labouchere told Brodrick when the minister was requesting for additional funds.

Dissenting voices

In Nairobi, dissenting voices from economists who expressed doubts over the practicality and cost implications of the SGR project were similarly shouted down.

Just like it was a century ago, almost every single estimate for the SGR was wrong. From procurement of materials to compensation of landowners, every single calculation eventually veered off the original estimates buoyed by a biased contract committed by the Government and to be painfully honoured by taxpayers.

The viability of the SGR was also questioned. Was it prudent to spend Sh400 billion on the project? Profitability, at least according to Government operatives, was expected soon after operations started. The projections of passenger numbers and cargo movement were packaged to make them attractive to sceptics.

In 1895, the British Government presented its numbers. It calculated that the train would bring in £60,000 a year, the cost of working would be £40,000 a year, and the charge for interest on the capital sum borrowed would be £56,000 a year. Therefore, the sum lost to the country for a few years until the policy developed was to be £37,000 every year.

Fast forward to 2019 when officials from the Ministry of Transport said that Kenya earned Sh7.54 billion in the nine months to September the previous year from the railway’s freight business. This was from the transportation of more than 3.25 million tonnes of cargo. Passenger numbers, however, dropped by almost 200,000 during that same period.

At the time, data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics showed that SGR cargo earnings in the nine months almost doubled compared to its 2018 earnings, which stood at Sh4.09 billion. This set the country on a trajectory to earn Sh10 billion from the line. But there was a problem. The SGR’s annual operating costs stool at Sh18 billion.

Just like a century ago, the outlook remains rather bleak for this grand project. If anything, it looks like it will be years before the SGR breaks even.

Professional opinions were often shunned in both instances. In 1892, the East African Chartered Company operating out of Uganda proposed to set up the railway but in so doing claim certain rights that would be of immense advantage to them.

“We were not told much about the advantages to the company, but we were told that those were the grounds upon which it was suggested that a railroad was desirable, and that it might be economical,” Labouchere said in the British Parliament in 1900.

Not much information was available about the company that came up with the proposal.

Exorbitant cost

Soon after the 2013 elections, a conglomerate of Chinese companies proposed to lay the railway at what appeared to be exorbitant cost.

Convinced that this would benefit the country, the Government committed to the project that would see Kenyans pay high interest rates on loans advanced by Chinese financiers towards the project.

At the time, the contract that committed generations of Kenyans to the deal was kept secret until details of the punitive nature of the arrangement emerged.

Whereas the Lunatic Express was used by the British Empire as a route to harvest the best of what lay in the hinterland–ivory, game, agricultural produce, cheap labour, tea, coffee and livestock–the SGR was also used as a tool for exploitation.

Inflated construction prices and kickbacks, as well as fictitious pay-outs for compensation, benefitted the political elite. China, as the main financier, was guaranteed a healthy profit from its expensive loans. As Britain scrambled for Africa then, so too have the Chinese been doing 100 years later.

On both occasions, the people are poorer from projects whose origins they knew nothing about. They are left to struggle to pay off debts as they struggled against imperialists who sequestered their best lands for the railway.

While the Lunatic Express, a phrase first used by Labouchere in the British Parliament years ago, helped carve out a country, the SGR has helped to further disenfranchise it. Beyond the romanticisation of the Lunatic Express and the glitz of the SGR, the two lines that for the most part run side by side represent an inescapable bond between the histories of the oppressed and the oppressors, forever linking our fates.


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