REVIVING LUNATIC RAILWAY

Re-establish entity to run, coordinate Railways and Harbours in EAC

In Summary

• I happen to think that the lunatic line and its offsprings can still be useful to the economies of East Africa.

•The idea is not new:  It has been practised before. Hence there is nothing "lunatic" about it

Depiction of railway superintendent Charles Ryall being eaten by lions in the film in 'Permanent Way'
Depiction of railway superintendent Charles Ryall being eaten by lions in the film in 'Permanent Way'
Image: ARCHIVES

I have always wondered whether there was any serious feasibility study done by the British Government prior to the building of what came to be known as the "Kenya-Uganda Railway"

It is most likely there was none. What drove the idea was the logic of colonialism, which was "to open up the interior of East Africa for economic gain."

In the British Parliament, there was doubt and cynicism among some MPs who called the line a "lunatic line". In other words, only a mad man with little sense of return for money would have engaged in this crazy infrastructure venture.

 

But once the railway reached Nairobi, the place of good water, some of those doubting Thomases in the British Parliament were the first to forget their OxBridge degrees and head for adventure in the wonderful weather of what soon became Kenya, the home of a new breed of people called "the white settlers."

The railway did eventually reach Uganda though  a ship ride from Port Florence (Kisumu) or on land via Malaba on the Kenya-Uganda border. Very little is known about how much was spent to build the branches of this lunatic line to places like Nanyuki and Butere, for example. What we know is that they served the economic and political interests of the settlers and the colonial  government which dared to dream that this venture was necessary no matter the cost  

That these railway lines still exist today without being used beats logic. The technology used then has been long surpassed by the advancements in transport science and there is all the good reasons why it is urgent for us to invest in the standard gauge railway and not a lunatic line. But is it logical to let that historical investment to go to waste just because we now have something better?

I happen to think that the lunatic line and its offsprings can still be useful to the economies of East Africa,  if we situate them in the context where we are now seeing towns growing and the demand for cheaper and safer means of transport rising. I will give you an example.

Soon after the Narc government came to power in January 2003, some time later that year, the then Vice President, Moody Awori, led us on a train ride from Kisumu to Butere.

We left Kisumu around 9am and reached Butere at 1pm or 2pm. The journey took long since we stopped at every station to address wananchi  and emphasise Narc's policy of reviving Railways to spearhead economic recovery. We also talked about our intention to build the SGR from Mombasa to Kisumu and Malaba to intensify our trade with Uganda and Central Africa. We talked about reviving other branches of the Kenya Railways which had been neglected for years.

I remember one woman in Butere breaking into a song and dance, saying she will now be able to take her bananas to Kisumu cheaper than taking the rude and expensive matatus. 

 

Unfortunately, after our "lunatic ride", nothing ever came out of our promises to the people we met. The only promise that has been fulfilled todate is the building of the SGR from Mombasa to Naivasha as of now. But why did our promise remain unfulfilled? The truth lies in what happened to Kenya Railways some time during the Nyayo era and our tendency to rely on quick fixes in making, or neglecting to make, imaginative and daring decisions to develop our nation.

As privatisation became a popular government policy to rid itself of the burden of managing the economy through state-owned enterprises, bureaucrats became very keen on how they could strip state-owned companies of certain assets before they were privatised. Truth be told Kenya Railways became the biggest culprit in this.

Having been the model of a well run and profitable public enterprise for years, the 1990s ended with Kenya Railways losing its lustre very rapidly. I had always loved to take my family on a train ride to Mombasa every now and again. As Minister for Planning and National Development U made it my duty to travel to Moves by train whenever I had some meeting or work down at the coast. 

Towards the end of 2003, when I last travelled on the "lunatic line" to Mombasa, I was by shocked how poor the service was and how low the number of passengers were in the First Class coaches. I engaged one of the stewards in a conversation while having dinner in the restaurant that night. My question was: What is happening to KR?

The man's answer was simple. "The bosses. They don't want KR to work."

I inquired why this was the case. The guy said: "They have interests in road transport and matatus and they are stripping the assets of the corporation since it is going to be privatised anyway."

Kenya Railways is now the diminutive size of its former self. Without the SGR very little is left of it due to what the bosses did to it. And that is why our lunatic ride to Butere with the then Vice President did not amount to much.

But we now have President Uhuru Kenyatta who has a keen interest in building Railways in Kenya. Complimented by Raila Odinga's role as the AU High Representative on Infrastructure at the African level, these two bosses are capable of doing things qualitatively differently from those who presided over the demise of the former Kenya Railways, the child of Kenya Railways and Harbours and the grand child of East African Railways and Harbours.

We may as well begin tracing our steps to where we came from and ŕe-establish one entity which runs and coordinated Railways and Harbours in the East African Community countries.

This would make a lot of sense. The idea is not new:  It has been practised before. Hence there is nothing "lunatic" about it. It can be done provided our leaders in the region together "date to dream" and to dream as big as the Chinese do. A dream with East Africa characteristics!