Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Parallel or crossed Lines- A new job for Kenya's Titus Naikuni.

Former Kenya Airways CEO Titus Naikuni is switching his transport interests to rail via his appointment as Chairman of Rift Valley Railway. This is the company responsible for running the historic metre guage line from Mombasa through to Uganda via Nairobi and the demanding Rift Valley escarpment. In theory it should be a scene of 24/7 intense activity by a succession of freight trains from Mombasa to distribution centres in Nairobi and in Uganda, the latter not only for Uganda destined traffic but also as a railhead for Rwanda, Burundi and the eastern Congo. In reality it isn't. Low frequency trains occupy the tracks for a low percentage of their potential availability and most freight traffic makes the journey slowly much to the detriment of the parallel and overburdened road system and to the advantage of  wide girthed Traffic Police who staff run road blocks which create further congestion while all manner of fines are extracted from the unfortunate drivers, all adding to the cost and slowness of end to end transits. Rift Valley Railways, set up some years ago was meant to solve all this and at least get the system working, in theory slickly and efficiently but there is little so far to show for this good intention. In the meantime the whole bucket chain of vested interests ranging from politicians to police functionaries in maintaining the tortuous status quo have stayed happily in business.

Now these interests are faced with two threats. The first and perhaps lesser is a really revitalised Rift Valley Railways under Mr Naikuni. The second is the rapid building of the new but again parallel Chinese financed SGR- Standard Guage Railway whose first section from Mombasa to Nairobi is due to open in 2018, just two years from now. This is a massive and hugely expensive project which to have any chance of financial success and being able to repay China, something on which despite their smiling faces the Chinese tend to insist, must sweep away the convoys of lorries and these deeply entrenched  interests.

How Rift Valley Railways, sandwiched between new rail and old road will be Mr Naikuni's challenge. It hasn't got the investment of the SGR or the clout of the road lobby whose creaking infrastructure has only been kept going by a succession of overseas loans and aid packages over the years. Can he pull the trick of a low cost revival of  the original colonial "Lunatic Line" ? It's down to leadership, high energy management and staff up for the challenge, not just money per se although he will need a lot of that too.


One of Africa's biggest problems and inhibitors to growth has always been its lack of a true and integrated road and rail network from north to south and east to west. There is at least a tar road throughout from the Cape to north of Nairobi but the optimistically named "Trans Africa Highway" from Mombasa to Lagos, just hasn't happened beyond Uganda. Nor have other east- west links recognisable as such north of the Limpopo. We have touched on it before but it is worth speculating what would have happened had Germany won World War 1. The betting must be on a Cape-Cairo dual carriageway crossing in Kenya with another from Mombasa to Lagos and on along the West African coast  again in parallel, a high quality railway with consistent guage throughout more or What that could by now have done for Africa politically,socially and economically can only be guessed at.