OPINION

SGR freight transport to boost regional economies

By 2019, an average of 16 freight trains were operated on a daily basis.

In Summary

• Rail freight transport is all about moving goods with efficiency.

• Across the world, rail companies are investing millions of dollars to maintain efficiency, safety, and sustainability of their networks. 

Passengers at the Nairobi terminus going to board the SGR passenger train to Mombasa
Passengers at the Nairobi terminus going to board the SGR passenger train to Mombasa
Image: FILE

Rail freight is crucial in today’s competitive economic landscape, and operators are looking to expand their networks’ capacity and productivity.

In fact, the demand for new and upgraded rail lines has been growing rapidly in recent years.

When considered in terms of ton-miles or tonne-kilometres hauled per unit of energy consumed, rail transport can be more efficient than other means of transport. It is not lost on observers that trains made the industrial revolution possible. When goods need to be moved across long distances, few transportation modes can be as efficient as railroads. This is why trains have always been part of the logistics chain.

Rail freight transport is all about moving goods with efficiency. Across the world, rail companies are investing millions of dollars to maintain efficiency, safety, and sustainability of their networks. As well, there has been tremendous growth in intermodal traffic.

Compared to transport by road, transport by rail is more environmentally friendly, as fuel consumption is lower. It is also possible to transport huge shipments at once over long distances, at relatively low costs. In addition, rail freight transport is well-organised with fixed timetables, which give accurate rail freight quotes.

It is also not influenced by traffic conditions such as traffic jams, and is the safest way of transporting goods.

Rail freight particularly comes in handy when looking for high-speed delivery over long distances, shipping large quantities in bulk, or shipping inland from a port. Raw materials such as coal and iron ore are also best transported by rail freight, as it uses three times less fuel than road transport. Moreover, rail transport can lower greenhouse gas emissions by 75 per cent. It is also least affected by weather conditions such as rains, fog, etc. compared to other modes of transport. Its capacity is also elastic as it can easily be increased by adding more wagons. The large capacity also means the creation of more job opportunities.

President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the SGR freight service on December 1, 2017, followed by the introduction of double-stack freight trains on September 29, 2018. By 2019, an average of 16 freight trains were operated on a daily basis. As of February 24, 13,000 trains had operated on the SGR over a total distance of 6,368,000 Kilometers.

In terms of cargo tonnage, over 760,000 TEUs had been transported by the beginning of March. There are currently 17 Kenyan junior locomotive drivers who drive freight trains independently. Africa Star Railway Operation Company (Afristar) transports grain, fertiliser and dangerous goods.

Just like any other industry, the rail freight business is subject to change and trends, thanks to technological innovations and implementation of the Internet of Things (IoT), big data analytics and cloud computing, all having an effect on rail freight.

It is also noteworthy that transport management systems are becoming the norm, with each new version offering more technology, analytics, and more options for the optimisation of transport. Innovations have also been witnessed in the field of wagon technology, with the advancement in areas such as; loading/unloading times (through design characteristics); carrying capacity (through bigger wagons and/or higher axle loads); better bogies (that permit faster speeds and fewer derailments); and better braking systems and draw-gear (that allow longer trains).

According to a 2009 DFID report, wagon manufacturers have engaged in extensive Research and Development efforts that allow the production of specialized rolling stock for specific traffics and even for individual freight customers. Afristar is keen on adopting these technologies to offer the best service to its customers.

With railways offering significant cost efficiency for freight (including container) haulage over distances in excess of 300 km, rail is assuming an increasingly important role in trade feeder transport. It is being buttressed in this role by truck transport which assumes a local feeder role, involving the local distribution of traded commodities between inland ports stations and the trade originating and terminating locations, designated as Trade Generating Locations, over distances which rarely exceed 50 km.

So far, rail freight transport has greatly contributed to the decongestion of the port of Mombasa as the increased capacity of transport infrastructure is meeting the existing transport demand at the port, resulting in the movement of high freight volumes.

The region is also set to become a competitive investment destination as the SGR will lead to higher speeds thus reducing transit times between destinations, and consequently, lower costs of production. Additionally, better access to markets will aid the exploitation of various resources in the region.

The writer is a communications adviser, Africa Star Railway Operation Company