PUBLISHED ON November 24th, 2014

Standard gauge railway is the way forward for Kenya

In the UK there is an old joke. A man driving a car is lost and he stopped to ask directions of a local man leaning on a gate. The man leaning on the gate thought for a very long time and then said “You know. If I wanted to go there I wouldn’t start from here.”

The railways of sub-saharan Africa are rather like that. It’s all about the criteria which one starts with. When the British came to Kenya there were no roads and no railway and aeroplanes had not yet been invented. So they started with the “given” that is Mombasa which was the existing port. Starting at Mombasa, the railway had to get to Kampala to enable the extraction of minerals, wild animal products especially elephant tusks to make piano keys, and timber and farm products. It didn’t matter if it was slow – it was still much faster and hugely greater in carrying capacity compared to ox carts or head loads.

It also makes sense with a railway to run it close to centres of population so that one day the trains will be full of paying passengers. Those future passengers as well as most of the farms were mainly in the centre and west of Kenya, so that’s where the railway ran. The history books also mention that the administration at that time was close to Machakos, so the railway went close to there as well.

Thus the railway was built from Mombasa to the marshes of Nairobi, where at that time nobody except a few Maasai lived, and was not routed to the north of Mount Kenya, which is much flatter and easier to build railways. Nairobi was on the boundary of the plains and the mountainous edge of the Rift Valley. This route forced the difficult descent up then down into, and then further north out of, the Rift Valley, and the proximity of Nairobi to these difficult major engineering activities made it become a “base camp” railway town making railway equipment and ultimately the Capital City and an industrial centre taking the raw materials from further inland and overseas and converting them into goods to sell and trade.

Now the world has moved on 120 years and the railway has had minimal investment and roads became the popular thing of the future so there has been a discouragement for investment in railways. However a monumental shift has happened in the factors surrounding infrastructure investment in Kenya. That has happened in a form of transport even older than railways – shipping – and in the explosive need for countries in the middle of Africa to trade with the rest of the world, supplying raw materials and receiving finished goods.

Mombasa harbour is active and has grown from an old fashioned port to a container port and bulk port. However the technology of shipping means that ships are getting bigger and bigger. So much so that the new gauge of container ships is too big for Mombasa. Mombasa harbour is too shallow and not wide enough for the biggest ships to turn. It also does not have the capacity to take the huge volumes of goods which are needed to pass into and out of East and central Africa. Luckily Manda Bay is big enough and is the biggest harbour for around 1,000Km north and south. So Kenya has an incredible opportunity to build a state-of-the-art new harbour with the assurance that it is likely to remain East Africa’s main port for a very long time indeed. Railway and road connections to other countries are much easier than from Mombasa.

Opportunities often come with difficulties attached to them and the difficulties of Manda are that there isn’t a railway connection or road from there into the middle of the continent to bring out raw materials. The railway gauge chosen for East Africa by the British Empire, because of the curves and gradients of the Mombasa route, was one metre. This imposes slow travel and limited weights of goods. The ideal gauge is the Standard Gauge, 4ft 8½ inches which is used throughout the developed world and which allows very high speeds and many times greater weights.

These are the gauges (widths between the inside of the rails) in various countries of Africa:

  1. Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia: 1000mm
  2. Egypt and the N.African coast countries where railways are still working: Standard Gauge, 4ft 8½ inches, 1435mm
  3. South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola, Mozambique, DRC, Tanzania, Nigeria, Southern Sudan: 3ft 6ins; 1067mm

Clearly our neighbours impose another problem. They are all on a different gauge to us, yet we have to handler huge volumes of icargo to anf from the countries. So the railway gauge from Manda to anywhere else needs to be something they can use. It is preferable to change to Standard Gauge but the cost of changing all of those other countries as well is enormous even though the Kenya/Uganda/Ethiopia investment is new, needed, and requires a wider gauge.

In order to handle the volume of goods the new northern corridor railway needs to have double track from Manda to a junction north of Isiolo to link to a new railway into Ethiopia and also to some junction in Turkana. The Turkana junction will link to Kampala, South Sudan, Sudan and one day probably to Congo (both countries), Nigeria, Rwanda and via South Sudan to countries north of Nigeria. For the future to be fast operating and efficient all this enormous system needs Standard Gauge and a lot of automation. It also must run on time all the time, unlike all of the present railways of East Africa which have decayed into the classic – “we hope the train will run next week”. One day it should be Standard Gauge. If that is the long term future then neighbouring governments should all consider making the change now so that all countries can embrace the future.

There is already a need for a much faster link between the two cities. To travel by air imposes these times:

  1. Travel from central Nairobi to JKIA: 1-2 hours
  2. Wait at the airport: 1 hour
  3. Fly down: 1 hour
  4. Collect bags and travel into central Mombasa: 1 hour

That is a total of 4-5 hours city centre to city centre which we accept because of the glamour of air travel and because it is much better than anything else. The distance is approximately 450Km. In a typical European situation it would take 2½ hours by train, would run to time and the trains would be full of goods and passengers. If such a railway ran to Nakuru and Eldoret, which business person in their right mind would want to swap 1½ and 2¼ hours respectively in comfort by rail for the misery and danger of the highway?

There is another “given” which is that, although there is a current lull in oil prices, there will be a long term trend of prices upwards relative to cost of living because the experts tell us that oil extraction has reached the “half life” and rate of extraction is still increasing. The half life is the point where half of the world’s oil there was originally has been extracted and consumed. Railways can use electricity from non-oil sources for mass transport but so far nobody has designed a battery system to take a lorry from the ocean to Voi, let alone to Nairobi, Kampala, Juba, or even Lagos. For trade to continue its growth we will need to use railways not roads. The railways will need to be fast and productive.

So what do we do? The whole of Africa from the Sahara to Cape Town has old, outdated, railways of a gauge which does not allow the highest speeds or load carrying capacities. The entire system needs upgrading and has done for over 50 years. Kenya has the opportunity to build a modern, slick, automated port at Manda which could handle trade effciently from the whole of Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Congo, DRC, South Sudan and Ethiopia and in the future from places as far afield as Nigeria and Mali. There could in principle be an electrified fast railway to Johannesburg and Cairo taking less time city centre to city centre than flying. That is what is in existence in Europe, including Russia, and China, and is being installed in the USA and Canada.

If one were to start with a clean sheet of paper all these African railways would be Standard Gauge. In view of the over-riding factor of diminishing world oil we will need to invest in this wider network at some point. The problem is how to finance it all.

The biggest difficulty is the ever shortening perspective money men have of investment. Got to have a payback in two years; five years, 10 years, 15 years!! It just doesn’t make sense for a major infrastructure project. If there is to be a resource which is, demonstrably, likely to last 100 years why does it need to have a relatively short payback time? If the infrastructure is great then trade will work well and very much money will be made. Short-term money grabbing is not appropriate when a long future is at stake. Why not issue bonds in each country, create a design likely to last effectively for that 100 years and get on with it so the countries concerned can prosper instead of being stifled by lack of investment. Let’s build something our grandchildren and great grandchildren will be grateful for.

There is a good parallel. For most of my lifetime people talked about building a railway tunnel from England to France. Technically it was a highly possible and much needed resource for trade. However the people with the boats wanted to retain their monopoly of the crossing of 24 miles or sea. The financiers were worried about the risk. So the procrastination was unbelievable and there was so much spin put on things.

After 40 years the tunnel was finally constructed. Now you can travel from central London to central Paris in about two hours, much faster than going by aeroplane. You get a great meal. You can hire a meeting room on the train and have a business meeting right there in privacy, have another meeting in Paris, and travel back having a third meeting on the train, so no time is wasted. There is live internet throughout. The UK Government having procrastinated so long about whether to do it now sees its stake many times more than the investment it made in this hugely profitable enterprise and is considering the sale of it to help with the financial problems it faces.

The boat owners? – well the trade has increased so much as a result of the tunnel that the boat transport has increased as well. Trade is always an opportunity not a threat. Trade relies on good infrastructure and is always stifled by poor infrastructure. Everyone makes more money when trade improves. It’s like swimming – first you have to get into the water.

Well done Kenya going for a Standard Gauge railway! Let’s bite the bullet NOW and build a proper fast Standard Gauge railway system from Mombasa to Nairobi and then the new two-track railway from Manda Port to Kampala, Juba and Addis Ababa.

Source: All Africa

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of TradeMark Africa.