Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Railways,- Hopeful signals in East Africa.

For many years East Africa's railways have been crying out for renewal, refurbishment and increases in capacity and for those then to be fully utilised. Taking traffic off the congested Mombasa-Nairobi-Kampala road is a priority both to save the heavy wear imposed by slow moving heavy lorries and trailers heading not only for Nairobi but onwards to Uganda and then south into Rwanda and Burundi. Moving a proportion of this traffic to rail would not only speed up transit times but reduce the vehicles' susceptability to the attention of various authorities at numerous check points throughout Kenya. These seem to find an extraordinarily large amount of reasons for imposing on the spot fines of one sort or another. Receipt forms often seem to be in short supply so there are probably many in Kenya very happy to see the traffic stay where it is,-on the roads.(or maybe just a little to one side of them while "cashpay" terms for alleged trangressions are discussed).

The concession to run Rift Valley Railways, as the network is now called , was some years ago allocated to a South African consortium, Sheltam, and there was great initial optimism that dramatic improvements in stock, track and performance would follow. The same optimism had accompanied South African Airways' successful bid to run Air Tanzania. Unfortunately both involvements turned out to be disappointing and both have now exited with little to show for their involvement

The website of RVR's 51% owners, Cairo based Citadel Capital Platform Company African Railways, dated 2nd August, and "The East African" newspaper in its August 8th edition have however given new glimmers of hope of progress. Firstly, 5 year loans totalling $164 million for the refurbishment of the existing track, locomotives and rolling stock have now been agreed. Amongst those contributing is International Finance Corporation, the private sector lending arm of the World Bank. Hopefully this will enable the metre gauge line to be restored to something like its former capability and it will become again a credible means of long haul freight transport.

Much more exciting for the longer term though is the planning of a new parallel standard gauge line which would eventually replace it. An agreement to develop this was concluded between Kenya and Uganda in 2008. Another standard gauge line is also being planned by Tanzania and Uganda more or less along the alignment of Tanzania's Central Line from Dar es Salaam to Dodoma and on the Mwanza on Lake Victoria whence goods would be taken by a proper train carrying ferry to Uganda's Port Bell. Metre gauge lines were much easier and cheaper to build than higher specification standard gauge ones during the earlier colonial era. Speed was less important then and the total tonnages of freight were much lower. Passenger trains which do not fit well with heavy freight ones on any railway line were infrequent and slow but just about adequate for the numbers wishing to use them. The development of standard gauge lines could revolutionise rail transport in East Africa, making the flow of commerce quicker, easier, up to 35% cheaper and less prone to en route interference. The Tanzanian line would cost about $ 2 billion, a huge amount for the country, but less huge for donor and supporting countries wishing to invest in a real project with ongoing tangible benefits( assuming appropriate ongoing maintainence support was also put in from the beginning). Railways and their performance are tangible and visible and their construction can be monitored every yard of the way. They are therefore a much better bet for the international aid industry and lenders than many other projects which seem to involve large sums of money with little to show for them. There is a chance here that Kenya's famed "Lunatic Line" could become sane. Both projects will require urgency and commitment to ensure that they do not get bogged down in endless complications, political wrangles and delays. Also essential is top quality enthusiastic management and not a bunch of mercenaries whose hearts aren't really in the tasks.

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