What Does the Mombasa–Nairobi SGR Really Mean for Kenya and East Africa?


After a few years of tracklaying of the Mombasa–Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), President Uhuru Kenyatta finally flagged off the first train on the railway amid claims of a grand corruption scheme (in the region of KES 100 billion) allegedly supervised by top government officials. Here, we present an objective view on what the project means for Kenya and East Africa.

Another Burden on the Kenyan Taxpayer?

Although the “whistleblowers” may never darn their fragmentary and circumstantial evidence regarding the multi-billion scandal, anything is possible in Kenya notwithstanding the country’s signature political rhetoric. The question why President Kenyatta’s administration decided to borrow a large sum of money to construct an expensive SGR instead of upgrading the current one is sound and needs answers. In fact, Brazil has proved that a meter gauge track can perform just as good as a standard gauge railway. The government defended the SGR project arguing that it would carry up to 25 tonne axle thereby minimizing the damage caused on roads by heavy trucks, some of which have up to five axles. Nonetheless, Brazil transports over 100 million tonnes annually with an upgraded meter gauge railway, which makes one wonder why the government asked for such an unnecessary debt.

Value for Money and Convenience

Up until 2000, the meter gauge railway had deteriorated due to poor maintenance that passenger trains were taking 24 hours to move between Mombasa and Nairobi as recently as 2016. Consequently, freight passing through the Port of Mombasa fell significantly then followed by a $1.5 million loss reported by Rift Valley Railways in 2014.

We can unapologetically say that the majority of those questioning the performance of the trains are either supporters of the opposition coalition, NASA, or uninformed spoilsports. First of all, the DF8B locomotives intended for freight services on the SGR have a power output of 3,680 kW and can move up to a speed of 100 km/h with a tractive force (pulling or pushing capability) of 340 kN. Meanwhile, the DF11 locomotives for passenger trains are designed with engine power output of 3,610 kW and maximum tractive effort of 245 kN. Although these are semi-high-speed locomotives, surely, 170 km/h is not that bad. If the locomotives are still operational in the People’s Republic of China, what renders them unsuitable for Kenya, which is no match in any way for the East Asian nation?

Bad News for Airlines

The SGR will connect the region under the East Africa Community from the Port of Mombasa to Rwanda via Uganda, whose phase of the project scheduled to begin later this year. Bad news for airlines? Somehow. As such, the project means lower freight rates and transportation costs. In Kenya, when commercial services finally begin, the economy class ticket will cost KES 900 only while first class travelers will pay KES 3,000 between Nairobi and Mombasa when local and other budget airlines charge an average of KES 8,000 for a one-way ticket. Of course, one could argue this hypothesis based on the ongoing expansion of fleets by East African airlines, but demand for air travel in the region has always been low, which makes it a lossmaking venture.

Employment and Economic Growth

One of the biggest positives of the SGR project is employment. The project requires professionals to manage traffic and transportation, engineers to take charge of telecommunications, and others to oversee locomotive and rolling stock maintenance. So far, over 100 Kenyans are guaranteed jobs in running the railway network after graduating from the Railway Training Institute in Nairobi.

Of course, the SGR might not be the next big thing it is touted to be in Africa, but in all honesty, it promises value for money for East Africans. It might be bad news for local airlines, but such an argument could hold some water had the demand for air travel been high in the region prior to the implementation of the SGR project. Those questioning the performance of the locomotives, nothing could be further from the truth since they are faster than the existing ones and far much better in terms of tractive effort and power output. Nevertheless, lots of questions remain unanswered and the government is yet to come out clear on the claims that budget for the project was inflated.

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