Near collapse for 100 year old railway

A railway line between Kenya and Uganda, built by British colonialists a century ago, faces closure thanks to mismanagement, corruption and civil war since independence.

Steam engine on the Kenya - Uganda Railway during the colonial era. Picture by

Steam engine on the Kenya - Uganda Railway during the colonial era. Picture by

In spite of a burgeoning population in the East African region, and expansion in trade, the Kenya – Uganda Railway is carrying less cargo and passengers today than was the case in 1960 when independence washed across Africa. Hundreds of kilometres of line have been ravaged by vandals after they saw the railway lying idle for decades. Locomotives have been described as, “museum pieces.” The same wagons left behind by the British are still in use today.

Where passenger trains do operate, the schedules are as rickety as the trains. Twenty years ago, the Mombasa to Kisumu line had eight passenger trains a night, with reliable timetables. Today, the passenger service has been cut to two passenger trains a night, if at all. Often, trains break down in the middle of the African bush. A journey that would have taken 10 hours in the 1980s can easily take 24 hours today. Passengers have to travel in darkness as the lighting system broke down long ago. Toilets have been converted into “passenger cabins.”

Regional industries long gave up on trains, in spite of the fact that road transport is very expensive. Delays, pilferage and damages to goods in transit was simply not worth the savings. By July this year, the railway was handling only 7% of regional cargo, a figure described by its management as, “the most that our capacity can handle.” Consequently, the highway between Mombasa and Uganda resembles a convoy as thousands of trucks ferry containers in every direction. The rate of road accidents increased dramatically as overloaded roads simply crumbled under pressure.

With this sorry state of affairs, the governments of Kenya and Uganda implemented a concession plan backed by the World Bank. Under the plan, a private railway operator would run the railway exclusively for 25 years. In exchange, the Kenya and Uganda governments would get annual concession fees. On the surface, it was a good plan because both governments had neither the funds nor the political will to rehabilitate the railway.

However, the plan was doomed to fail. Selection of the private operator – the concessionaire – ran into difficulties as influential forces sought to muscle their way into the potentially lucrative railway sector. By 2006, two front runners had emerged: Rift Valley Railways and an Indian firm linked to Indian Railways. Rift Valley Railways is a consortium consisting of Sheltam Rail, Transcentury Ltd, Centum Investments and Babcock Brown Investments. Sheltam Rail is a South African railway company while Transcentury and Centum represent Kenya’s wealthy ruling elite.

Technical reports indicated that the Indian firm ought to have won the concession. But the Kenyan and Ugandan governments dithered over the matter before finally settling on Rift Valley Railways. By the time the concession documents were signed in November 2006, Rift Valley Railways barely had the funds to revamp a railway system that was on its last legs. However, all was not lost for the Indian firm for it won the Tanzanian railway concession.

Trouble for Rift Valley Railways(RVR) began in January this year. Political and ethnic clashes in the wake of Kenya’s disputed elections brought the economy to its knees. Rioters and militant groups blocked roads and railways. In some places, such as the Kibera slum and in Kisumu, the railway was completely uprooted by supporters of Prime Minister Raila Odinga. Not only did Rift Valley Railways lose hundreds of millions as trains lay idle but it had to spend millions in reconstruction.

In July, staff of the RVR went on strike over poor working conditions, delayed pay and uncertain terms of service. The workers claimed that RVR was not willing to employ them on permanent terms while expatriate staff got huge pay perks. Meanwhile, the Kisumu to Nakuru railway line was closed due to vandalism.

RVR announced that it was bringing into its board two additional shareholders to boost the firm’s management. The two are Primefuels Kenya Ltd and Mirambo Holdings of Tanzania. They joined the existing board made up of Sheltam Rail, Transcentury Ltd, Centum Investments and Babcock Brown Investments.

The closure of the Kisumu – Nakuru line, coupled with the workers’ strike caused a huge pile up of cargo at the Mombasa port. Ships could not dock as manufacturers suffered from delays. Uganda, Southern Sudan and Rwanda – which all depend on Mombasa – protested to the Kenyan government.

This week, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, chaired a meeting that fired RVR’s Chief Executive, Roy Puffet. “The government of Kenya and that of Uganda have decided to give the RVR management three months to do whatever they can to restore services,” said Raila. According to the Standard daily, the meeting also resolved to allow other shareholders into the consortium in order to inject Shs260 million (US$3.8 million) into operations.

More importantly, was the decision to revoke RVR’s exclusivity in railway operations between Kenya and Uganda. This, Raila said, was to allow for the construction of a parallel railway line using the international standard gauge. According to Kenya Railways, the construction of the new line requires about Kshs50 billion ($746 million).

This money will be impossible to get considering budgetary constraints facing the Kenyan and Ugandan governments amidst rising oil and food prices.


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