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Return of trains from western Kenya signals transport shake-up

Casual workers cleaning a section of the Nakuru-Kisumu Railway. FILE PHOTO | NMG



  • Passenger train services will follow freight services upon completion of the new 23.5 kilometer link between Naivasha and Longonot and the rehabilitation of the old railway from Nakuru to Malaba.
  • Construction and rehabilitation work began last year and is expected to be completed in six months, paving the way for passengers to combine the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) and the Measured Gauge Railway.
  • The return of the services which collapsed in the 1980s will, however, disrupt the bus and matatus businesses which have enjoyed unparalleled dominance, increasing prices at will during the high seasons.

In September, residents and businesses in Kenya’s western regions will begin to avail of freight and passenger train services in what is expected to change travel options and hit booming matatu and bus businesses.

Passenger train services will follow freight services upon completion of the new 23.5 kilometer link between Naivasha and Longonot and the rehabilitation of the old railway from Nakuru to Malaba.

Construction and rehabilitation work began last year and is due to be completed in six months, paving the way for passengers to combine the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) and the Measured Gauge Railway for the journey from the coastal city of Mombasa to Kisumu and Malaba.

For a project costing the taxpayer some 10 billion shillings, Kenya Railways estimates it will be a game-changer for Kenyans traveling between Mombasa, Kisumu, the border town of Malaba and dozens of smaller towns where stations will be built.

The return of services which collapsed in the 1980s will, however, disrupt bus and matatus operations which have enjoyed unparalleled dominance, raising fares at will during peak seasons when demand is at its peak when Kenyans go home.

Long-distance buses like Simba Coach, Easy Coach and Guardian and 14-seater shuttles have been booming for years transporting people to western Kenya, especially during Easter and Christmas festivities, the shutdown and the reopening of schools.

Transport companies charge between 1,200 and 1,500 shillings when demand is low, but raise fares up to 2,500 shillings during peak seasons.

Kenya Railways did not reveal the fares passengers will pay to travel from Mombasa to Kisumu and Malaba, but said they will be affordable.

“The plan is to facilitate the movement of passengers between cities. We also plan to target farmers along the route, which means our fare must be minimal for now,” said Kenya Railways Corporation Managing Director Philip Mainga.

It is a story of a loss for the matatus and the buses but a victory for the people who will travel to and from the western parts of Kenya.

With a capacity of up to 1,600 passengers on a single trip, the train which will depart from Mai Mahiu in the morning and arrive in Malaba in the evening is expected to displace buses and matatus along the routes.

Suggested stations on the route that will cross the Rift Valley and end in Malaba include Menengai, Visoi, Sabatia, Maji Mazuri, Makutano, Equator, Timboria, Tumeiyo, Kaptagat, Plateau, Eldoret, Turbo, Webuye, Bungoma and Malaba.

Freight trains on the Mai-Mahiu at Longonot will begin operating in June as the service targets the transport of goods such as fertilizer and grain to and from the western Kenya food basket.

For a long time, shipowners in western Kenya avoided rail transport in favor of road transport.

Traders attributed the trend to unreliable rail services between Nairobi and Kisumu and improved roads linking the two locations.

Key routes such as Nairobi-Nakuru and Kericho-Mau Summit-Kisumu have undergone major reconstructions and expansions, making them easier and faster for users.

Rail transport, on the other hand, has for many years been limited by the nature of the railway line between Nairobi and Kisumu. Goods had to be transshipped at Nakuru as the track currently being upgraded could not support the mainline carriages. It could only support six wagons at a time.

Rail freight transport, however, remained buoyant between Mombasa and Nairobi, with statistics showing that the Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) inland container depot at Embakasi remained busy.

For example, in 2019, the depot handled 418,830 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of cargo, building on an impressive five-year trend of increases. The Nairobi DCI handled 29,103 TUEs of cargo in 2015. The Nairobi depot and another in Kisumu are key to reducing congestion around the Port of Mombasa as traders can move their cargo there while awaiting shipment to various destinations.

The Kisumu facility, however, sat idle for years. For example, in 2014, the container depot located in the Kisumu Kibos handled only 74 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), down about 176% from the previous year’s 204 TEUs.

With the rehabilitation of the railways and the subsequent return of passenger and freight trains to the region, sleepy towns along the line are expected to come alive through the creation of facilities providing social amenities such as food and l ‘accommodation.

Already, the SGR is slowly breathing life into the Duka Moja (literally meaning “a store”), a sleepy trading center on the Maai Mahiu-Narok road, about 20 kilometers from Suswa.

The rail line which cost $3.2 billion (355 billion shillings) from the port of Mombasa to Nairobi and another $1.5 billion (166 billion shillings) to extend to Naivasha, throughout the loans Chinese, is finally taking shape and with it, travelers and businessmen westward to Kenya will benefit.

Question marks over its viability persist, however, as revenues are lower than operating costs, but linking the line to western Kenya could be the first of a long journey to answer questions.

The restart of rail services to western Kenya is expected to complement the port of Kisumu which is currently undergoing expansion.

Until recently, the port of Kisumu had been affected for almost three decades by a number of factors, including a dilapidated railway infrastructure and a persistent impassable invasion of water hyacinths, as well as border disputes which transformed the freshwater lake in a handicap.

At its height, the port recorded vigorous commercial activity, aided by a reliable rail system and seagoing vessels which transported goods to ports such as Mwanza and Bukoba in Tanzania and Jinja and Port Bell in Uganda.

The government has since started a 3.7 billion shillings rehabilitation of the old Nakuru to Kisumu railway line, a project managed by the Kenya Defense Force in partnership with the Kenya Railways Corporation.

Kisumu Port has also undergone a major modernization, with works including concreting of the port yard, construction of the wharf, repair of the footbridge, renovation of the dry dock and rehabilitation of all buildings to improve the efficiency.

All inland roads and connecting roads to the port facility have also been repaired and jetties and supply quays are also being put in place. The port was further equipped with equipment such as forklifts, mobile cranes and semi-trailers.

The redesign is already yielding results as it grew in size in 2019 due to improved efficiency and increased trading. The volume of cargo handled increased to 17,735 tons, an increase of 62% compared to 2018.

The increase in freight was supported by a strong performance in the second half, reflecting better efficiency and an overall improvement in trade between partner states in the East African Community (EAC). The number of vessels using the port also increased to 41 in 2019 from 19 the previous year, representing an increase of 116%.

The renovation of the Kisumu facility as well as the planned repair and upgrade of the satellite jetties at Mbita, Homa Bay and Luanda K’otieno are expected to further improve trade in goods in the region.

Before the collapse of the lake transport system, Homa Bay was a main shipping point for goods to neighboring Tanzania. Kisumu ships docked in Homa Bay and unloaded goods which were then trucked to the Tanzanian border two hours away.