Experts at war over rail structure and supervision as SGR project limps on

An engineer directs trucks delivering materials for the construction of a stretch of the standard gauge railway at Man Eaters area in Taita Taveta County in February. A section of local engineers have complained that contractors were ignoring their opinion on how the SGR project was being executed. FILE

What you need to know:

  • Journalists from the Nation have visited a number of sites and structures in question in recent weeks and found that some of the works cited have developed cracks and others had to be demolished for rebuilding after the Kenyan engineers raised the red flag.
  • “The contractor tried to apply a thin layer of cement on the crack, which they explained, was to see whether the crack will widen. This shows that they were intending to ignore it if nothing happened,” said one of the supervising engineers who spoke on condition of anonymity.
  • Kenya Railways Managing Director Atanas Maina said that while some of the issues raised were valid, there were reasonable explanations and appropriate mitigation measures, contrary to what the engineers claimed, were being taken.

All is not well within the team of experts presiding over the construction of the standard gauge railway.

A section of local engineers involved in the project claim their opinion has been ignored even when they point out what they describe as “serious shortcomings” in the way the work is being executed.

The engineers have highlighted several incidents where some of the concrete works in progress have started developing cracks even before the structures are complete.

They have attributed these apparent weaknesses to the contractor’s decision to use the Chinese Standard instead of the British Standard that they are familiar with.

Many of the engineers on various sections who have questioned the design choices made by China Road and Bridges Construction (CRBC) say they are under pressure from the top for them to relent or else be transferred to more remote sites.

But their employers, a consortium of three companies (TSDI-APEC-EDON) says the problems highlighted by the local engineers are normal occurrences in all construction projects and have assured Kenyans of the structural integrity of the final product.

Journalists from the Nation have visited a number of sites and structures in question in recent weeks and found that some of the works cited have developed cracks and others had to be demolished for rebuilding after the Kenyan engineers raised the red flag.

IGNORE IF NOTHING HAPPENS

For instance, one of the footings of a Super Bridge being constructed at Voi had developed a crack along its width.

“The contractor tried to apply a thin layer of cement on the crack, which they explained, was to see whether the crack will widen. This shows that they were intending to ignore it if nothing happened,” said one of the supervising engineers who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In another culvert on the same section, a gaping 3 millimetre crack ran from the top to the bottom of the vertical piece, right next to an expansion joint.
The engineers explained that this would compromise the integrity of the structure which is meant to support the weight of the railway track and, at least, a single train carriage.

At Kiu Railway Station site, a section of a pier became unstable and eventually had to be demolished to give way for a new pier.
The engineers explained that this was because insufficient geotechnical studies had been carried out before the work began.

“These problems keep arising because the contractors are being conservative on the amount of steel reinforcement being used on the structures.

“We have severally raised concern over the strength of the concrete structures and the lack of reinforcement but our complaints have fallen on deaf ears as the contractor just continues working,” said one of the resident engineers.

BONE OF CONTENTION

Kenya Railways Managing Director Atanas Maina said that while some of the issues raised were valid, there were reasonable explanations and appropriate mitigation measures, contrary to what the engineers claimed, were being taken.

“The design standard being used by the Chinese is not what Kenyan engineers have used before and this was the main bone of contention in this project. For instance, Kenyans use steel in making culverts while the Chinese prefer concrete with minimal to no steel reinforcement,” he said.

Concerning the structural issues that had already been exposed, Mr James Karanja, an engineer and the deputy team leader for the consultants, blamed the defects on weather changes in the coastal region.

He added that all the concrete works that had developed cracks had been demolished and re-done, and that the newly poured concrete has been performing according to expectations.
“We are not aware of any frustrations by junior engineers on the different sites. So we can only address them once they are reported,” he said.

The Sh327 billion project is being supervised by a consortium of three companies: China-based Third Railway Survey and Design Institute Group Corporation (TSDI), Kenya-based APEC Consortium and Edon Consultants International Limited.

Last year, the Public Investments Committee tabled a special report before Parliament which highlighted the conflict of interest in having the SGR being constructed by CRBS and supervised by TSDI – both China-based companies.

“There is a clear, real and present threat that the construction of the Standard Gauge Railway will suffer from lack of a truly independent supervision especially in terms of quality guarantee and adherence to quality specifications,” reads the November 2014 report.

The report has been lying dormant and is yet to be debated after a section of the committee disowned it even as Transport Cabinet Secretary Michael Kamau, currently suspended, argued that its implementation would occasion a legal dilemma.

This is because the report recommends that the tender awarded to TSDI-APEC-EDON Consortium be cancelled, which may mean suspension and possible demolition of the works already underway.

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