The Tale of Standard Gauge Railways

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September 16, 2013

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Before the 19th century and colonialism, Syokimau, a Kenyan prophetess shared a vision she had. She foretold of a pale-skinned man who chirps like a bird that will come riding on an iron snake with legs of a centipede and have fire in his pockets (engine).

The pale-skinned man came, lay the railway line and left several decades after the Kamba prophetess’ visions. It appears he didn’t go for good. When Uhuru Kenyatta visited China – his first official state visit outside the continent – where he was accorded a 21-gun-salute, he bagged a KES 430 billion deal for the construction of a standard gauge railway.

Condition? The tender should be awarded to a Chinese firm.

The media has been awash with the term standard gauge railway. The term shouldn’t fascinate or give you the false impression that it is an extraordinary railway. The word ‘standard’ should make this obvious.

A rail gauge is the distance between the inner sides of parallel tracks. Basically, the width of the railway and by extension that of the cars. So, Kenya is laying the standard gauge rail like 60 percent of the world rails for interoperability.

Running from Mombasa via Nairobi to Malaba, the rail is expected to decongest the roads and provide a cheaper freight alternative deep into East Africa.

This is definitely good news for logisticians and regional businesses alike that will greatly benefit from reduced expenses and potentially increased revenues.

It is rumored that 33 terminals will be open along the rail immediately it is launched in 2017, with seven to be opened later. Remote areas will be opened up, employment opportunities will arise, and local economies will be boosted; hopefully putting an end to the lopsided development.

Unlike the old rusty and rickety trains – images etched in most Kenyans minds – those plying the Mombasa – Malaba corridor will travel at maximum speeds of 120 kilometers per hour. That’s fast enough to make Syokimau smile in her grave.

While the line will be primarily for freight, passenger service locomotives will be available for short commutes. Short is relative, though. I expect access to passenger service to feature equal if not superior facilities in comparison to The Syokimau Station. Syokimau currently features e-ticketing and electronic ticket swiping to open the turnstiles. Who would have thought?

Train - Interior


The flip side of the rail buzz, however, is that a lot of truckers will be put out of their jobs. Redundancy will hit them hard. Truckers’ dedication is hard to come by. Sleeping on the road for months, away from the love of family and a hot meal. No mean feat. My heart will go to them. I hope some will read this blog post, know what lies ahead and save up on M-Shwari to secure a loan before the rail construction ends. Hopefully, they’ll do something worthwhile: if not for themselves, for their children.

Economic downfall will also hit towns that depend on long distance haulage. Salgaa and Mlolongo always come to mind when truckers are mention. They are popular seedy reasons not worth discussing.
The Chinese did a commendable job with Thika Super Highway. Shall they wow us with the Standard gauge?


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