When the story of the Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto led Jubilee administration first four years in power finally gets chronicled in the future, one of the topics that will occupy pages and pages is the regime’s flagship infrastructure project, the Standard Gauge Railway.
The first phase of the line – Mombasa to Nairobi – is finally complete and the official launch is set for 31st May 2017 with the climax being President Uhuru Kenyatta’s ride in the inaugural train from Mombasa to Nairobi.
The railway is the most expensive infrastructure project ever initiated in Africa and it is hoped that, the line will shorten the journey between the two cities from 12 to 4 hours with passenger trains travelling at 120km/h, and freight trains carrying 25 million tonnes of cargo per year.
It is this mega project that I took my time to have a look at – 12 days before the official launch – by riding in a trial train from Nairobi to Mombasa and back.
My mission – which would soon pick momentum faster than expected – began in the early morning of Thursday 18th May 2017. I was supposed to catch a train leaving the new Nairobi Terminus for Mombasa at exactly 7:30 AM.
Being the typical Kenyan I am & with the traffic jams that characterize Mombasa Road that leads you to the Nairobi Terminus, I arrived at the station at exactly 7:35AM and alas, I was late!
The train was already leaving. I had been left simply because I was 5 minutes late.
It is this point that I made my first observation, though involuntarily. Here is a project that was about to change not just our economy but also our behavioral patterns. Honestly, never before had I observed such punctuality in Kenya. Typical Kenyan lateness had no room here.
I only got to embark on the train after pleading with my Kenya Railways contact who accepted to wait for me at the Athi River station. But even at Athi River, the train arrived ages before me despite the car I was using moving at a break neck speed.
SGR VS THE OLD RAILWAY
Once settled in the train, I now began a critical analysis of the SGR.
Coming first and almost by default was a comparison of the SGR construction story with that of the old Meter Gauge Railway – which I could clearly see from where I was seated as the two lines run parallel to each other in most places.
Just like the construction of Kenya’s first and only railway by the colonialists, the construction of the SGR has had it’s fair share of challenges.
Soon after the construction of the Lunatic Line (as the old line is colloquially known) commenced in Mombasa in 1896, work came to a sudden halt after a pair of lions stalked and killed tens of Indian and African workers constructing the Tsavo river bridge. These lions later came to be known as the man eaters of Tsavo.
A century later, in a classic incidence of history repeating itself, not long after the construction of the SGR began, Kenya’s modern day version of the man eating lions of Tsavo, corruption, came calling. Allegations of grand theft of public funds through the SGR almost led to a still birth of the project.
As the Lunatic express snaked it’s way into the interior of Kenya at the turn of the 19th Century – after overcoming the lions challenge – another major obstacle arose when the line reached the rift valley. The Nandi under their legendary medicine man and prophet Koitalel Arap Samoei could not allow the railway to pass through their land. They thus put up a spirited resistance that was only neutralized when Koitalel was killed.
And in a replica event, the construction of the SGR was almost halted upon reaching the Nairobi National Park as environmentalists took to the courts arguing that the line passing through the park would adversely affect the eco-system and consequently spell death for the only park within a capital city in the world.
However, just like the British back then, President Uhuru Kenyatta has remained unbowed, determined to see the successful completion of the project.
While laying the foundation stone for the line’s construction, President Kenyatta observed: “The project will define my legacy as president of Kenya. What we are doing here today will most definitely transform… not only Kenya but the whole eastern African region.”
WORLD CLASS COACHES
Being inside the SGR train coach is what a taxpayer can confidently describe as a classic case of value for his hard earned cash.
Crowning the trendsetting architectural and engineering marvel that is the post modern SGR stations, the train coaches are of exceptionally high standards. Even the economy class coaches are quite classy. The comfort therein is way above what one would contemplate upon seeing the attractive photos that have been circulating online for a while now.
The crew on board can only be equated to the Kenya Airways team before corruption came calling. Polite, well dressed, hospitable and welcoming, the fellows are a total contrast to the train staff we know.
However, more training is still need for the crew, to help them keep up with the SGR spirit. For instance, the train announcer on the train experienced several linguistic challenges while I was on board. At one point she took to the microphone and announced: ” Ladies and gentlemen, We are now approaching the Emali Station. We are not going to stand.”
THE MOST ENJOYABLE TRIP
But nothing excites you more than the memorable trip that is a ride in the SGR train. Despite the train moving at 120km per hour which is pretty fast, a passenger can comfortably have a breath taking view of the extensive Kibwezi sisal farms, the Yatta Plateau and Tsavo National Park; with soothing country music playing in the background.
However, for internet loving Kenyans like me, it is rather disappointing that one has difficulty going online as the internet keeps on fluctuating.
IN MOMBASA IN NO TIME
4 hours and a few minutes after leaving Nairobi, the train was in Mombasa!
From the Mombasa terminus, the rail proceeds to Port Reitz. The stretch between Mombasa Terminus and Port Reitz is principally meant for cargo trains.
My last and perhaps most encouraging observation as a young Kenyan, came by as I made my trip back to Nairobi two days later.
The train was set to leave the Mombasa Terminus at 9.30AM and being keen not to be late this time round, I arrived half an hour early.
It is then that I realized what a job creator the SGR is set to become.
Within the 30 minutes I was at the terminus, 20 plus motorbikes had come in and left, dropping staff, construction workers etc. In simpler terms, 20 young Kenyans had made a coin that morning by just delivering SGR staff. What about when there will be tens of Kenyans using the trains? I even met a former campus classmate who had landed a job as part of the crew!
And as the boda bodas dropped people at the terminus, I also thought: What if we introduced Huduma buses to ease movement from town to the main terminals and vice versa?
All in all, the SGR is definitely a risk worth taking. I wonder what will happen to the old railway line.