Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway lives up to its billing

It is in line with the East African Railway Masterplan, which aims at rejuvenating existing railways serving Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda

In Summary

•The SGR is the biggest Chinese project yet in Kenya. It was conceived by President Kenyatta and President of the People's Republic of China, Xi Jinping.

•It has put Kenya on the path to industrialisation, especially in manufacturing and value addition.

The SGR hauls hundreds of containers like these seen here at the Nairobi SGR Terminus, every day.
BUSINESS: The SGR hauls hundreds of containers like these seen here at the Nairobi SGR Terminus, every day.
Image: REUTERS

According to data released by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) on July 6, the standard gauge railway (SGR) passenger train moved some 7.78 million passengers between Nairobi and Mombasa since its inception in June 2017.

In 2021 the Chinese-built train carried the highest number of passengers at two million passengers, with 2018 coming second at 1.67 million passengers ferried.

Further, KNBS said the SGR ferried 699,055 passengers in 2017, 1.59 million passengers in 2019, and 1.29 million passengers in 2020. This massive movement of people using the modern rail service dubbed Madaraka Express is a display of increasing popularity of the SGR. The train has reduced travel time for passengers from Nairobi to Mombasa from an average of 10 hours to only five.

The 472-km SGR which was officially launched by President Uhuru Kenyatta on May 31, 2017 ushered in a new era in Kenya’s future national development. This is emphasised by the fact that it is the single most expensive infrastructural project in Kenya’s history. It has opened up the business potential along its route as people use the cargo line along the stages to transport various products, particularly agricultural.

The SGR is the biggest Chinese project yet in Kenya. It was conceived by President Kenyatta and President of the People's Republic of China, Xi Jinping, when they jointly witnessed signing of the memorandum of understanding on financing the Mombasa-Nairobi SGR Project on August 19, 2013.

The building of the SGR was necessary. First, the old railway technology and system had become an outmoded meter-gauge railway with low speeds, obsolete facilities, and low payload. This state of affairs was gradually hampering transportation of people and goods between the two most economically significant destinations in the country.

Alongside numerous other investments in key infrastructure projects (energy, roads, water) that drive investment, SGR is putting Kenya on the path to industrialisation, especially in manufacturing and value addition. This will ultimately improve the country’s import/export ratio through Mombasa and Lamu ports.

The most immediate impact of SGR includes reliable and high capacity transport, reduced freight tariff, de-congested roads leading to savings in road maintenance, de-congested port, skills transfer and an increase in employment opportunities, directly and indirectly, through industries that are coming up along the railway line development.

President Uhuru Kenyatta and special Chinese envoy State Councillor Wang Yong launch the Madaraka Express passenger train service in Miritini, Mombasa, May 31, 2017. /PSCU
President Uhuru Kenyatta and special Chinese envoy State Councillor Wang Yong launch the Madaraka Express passenger train service in Miritini, Mombasa, May 31, 2017. /PSCU

The SGR is in line with the East African Railway Masterplan, which aims at rejuvenating existing railways serving Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, and extending them initially to Rwanda and Burundi, and eventually, to South Sudan, Ethiopia and beyond. SGR is also a Kenya Vision 2030 project, which places efficient transportation as a major enabler of both national and regional development.

Goods going to the EA hinterland countries of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi will be cheaper due to decreased transport costs and faster arrival to their destinations. It takes at least two days for trucks to reach Kampala from Mombasa, which could now take a day once the railway reaches Kisumu. It will also make integration of the EA Community a reality with the easy movement of people within the region.

According to the President’s Delivery Unit (PDU), the SGR is a modern, efficient transport system that is enabling safe, comfortable travel for individuals and freight across the country and region at lower costs. The PDU says 1,620 freight wagons and 40 passenger coaches have been procured, 60 railway engineers have undergone training in China and 400 diploma holders taken through railway courses.

In addition, 30,000 Kenyans have been employed by the SGR and KSh 82 billion local content value has been added. In the second phase of SGR, from Nairobi to Suswa, 40 percent of the contracts were allocated to Kenyan citizens as promised.

The SGR has undergone a few challenges, the major being sabotage. Already, a section of the railway has been vandalized, either for economic or political reasons. Scrap metal is big business in Kenya, and unscrupulous dealers know that the metals used to construct the rails are of the highest quality in terms of toughness.

Politically, there are those who see SGR as being evidence of the current government’s (Jubilee’s) fulfillment of some of its most ambitious flagship promises and would want to see it fail by interfering with its efficiency!

But SGR’s impact has reached the “common man” in terms of being a cheap and efficient channel to do business. It has proved to the economic game changer it was touted to be at both the national and local levels.

The writer is the Executive Director of South-South Dialogues, a Nairobi based research and development communication think tank.