Let State eliminate these ironical frustrations and make SGR viable

The SGR cargo train.

Photo credit: Kevin Odit | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • One gets the distinct impression the SGR cargo operation is operating well below capacity and, at one point, there was a train with no container.
  • This is the most expensive infrastructure project in the country operating at way below capacity.
  • The core question that arises is, why is so much cargo continuing to go by road and so little by SGR?
  • For starters, the SGR millstone must be transformed into a game changer.

We may welcome getting back to life as we knew it in pre-Covid-19 times. But while life during the shutdown was both temporary, uncertain and often boring, it had some plusses.

The issue of traffic congestion is one. As I toiled along the Nairobi-Mombasa highway the other day, I realised that we have much to do to avoid the scenario where lack of planning and lethargic implementation of projects weighs down our lives and impedes our vital commercial and economic activity.

I am driving along spending much of my time overtaking truck after truck and watching faster trucks doing the same to their slower and often sluggish counterparts. Most are loaded with containers.

Every so often, one sees an SGR train carrying cargo, and occasionally passengers, zoom past. One gets the distinct impression the SGR cargo operation is operating well below capacity and, at one point, there was a train with no container.

Here is the absurdity of it. This is the most expensive infrastructure project in the country operating at way below capacity. The highway, which runs side by side with it, is frequently choked by massive congestion and slowdowns due to all these trucks on a road often not up to carrying such loads. Here is a $3.6 billion (Sh400 billion) rail project operating at well below capacity beside a patchwork of roads that need urgent attention or are slow works in progress. That is aside from the SGR’s day-to-day operating losses.

Regional hub

And we are the gateway to eastern Africa and a regional hub. This in itself is one of the main drivers of our economy.

The core question that arises is, why is so much cargo continuing to go by road and so little by SGR?

The proverbial retort is that you can bring a horse to the water but cannot make it drink it. One reason is that road transport is from port to the doorstep of the destination and relatively seamless.

Another is, when you factor in the costs, including delays, road transport works out cheaper, quicker and easier.  I am told the bureaucracy and general inconvenience of transporting via SGR can be mind-boggling.

Let us stand back a little. Run properly and efficiently, rail transport is cheaper and quicker than road haulage. Rail traditionally has a comparative advantage over road transport, especiallywith bulky goods. It can be more dependable as it is least affected by prevailing conditions. It is more uniform, what with fixed routes and schedules.

You can imagine, therefore, when I see so many trucks carrying cement how I shake my head and feel something is truly wrong.

Another irony is how we have a huge surplus of power being generated and an electricity distribution system that struggles to meet the demand of people who want that electricity. It has got better but waiting to get connected can be a lengthy wait.

Power outages

Then there is the frequency of outages not due to actual shortfalls of power but due to equipment prone to breakdown, such as transformers.

Kenya is no exception and there have been many questions about Kenya Power’s contract to import transformers from a company in India which were prone to breakdown. And bear in mind Kenya Power has an easy ride in that it is a monopoly, although some argue that is part of its problem.

There are a number of obstructions or impediments facing us which, with decisive, effective and honest management and directions, could be veritable assets. Kenya Railways must persuade, and show, the business community that carrying cargo on SGR has distinct advantages over road transport.

A combination of things must be done, including pushing down prices further; minimising ‘last mile costs’ so it’s more convenient; improving capacity for bulk transport and improving the inland container depot operations and those of KRA.

Basically, the government must get serious about reducing the ‘hassle’ factor on SGR cargo operations and facilities to make it ‘the better option’ for cargo transport.

For starters, the SGR millstone must be transformed into a game changer.


Mr Shaw is an economic and public policy analyst. [email protected]