When the idea to construct a railway line through a land owned by half naked unlettered natives was first mooted in the House of Commons in 1885, it was laughed off as ludicrous. Little did they know that it was a development whose time had come and there was no stopping it. Syokimau, a Kamba medicine woman and prophetess, had a vision where she saw a long iron snake belching fire and smoke as it slithered from the Indian Ocean and winding its way across the plains and highlands. As she divulged her prophecy, she said strangers would come with the snake and they would bring change.
Work on the railway line eventually began in 1896 and several shaky wooden trestle bridges, unpredictable terrain, hostile tribes, prohibitive cost, disease infestations and man-eating lions later, construction of the line culminated at Kisumu which was then known as Port Florence in 1901. The railway line proved to be a great asset to the nation and flourished giving birth to settlements and encouraged trade. In the 1980s, railway transport accounted for over 70 percent of freight transport market in Kenya. Syokimau’s prophecy had come true. The line did even more than what she had told. The line had such a profound effect on our country and is the greatest contributor to the fruits of economic prosperity we enjoy today. However, over the years, railway transport declined due to ageing infrastructure and derelict rolling stock. The standards fell so low that at one point the railway controlled only about 1.5 percent of the total freight transport market in Kenya.
If you are in the railway industry presently, it is time to fasten your seat belt because the modern times have brought a turnaround in the fortunes of the industry. Even though Syokimau did not tell us that her prophecy would come true twice, we in the rail sector today are a privileged lot. We are right in the middle of the revamp of the rail transport sector in the country.
The Standard Gauge Railway project
The second coming of the iron snake has manifested in form of the high speed, high capacity Standard Gauge Railway project traversing the plains and highlands from the edge of the Indian Ocean in Mombasa to Suswa town in Narok County, whose construction lasted from 2014 to 2019.
The new line which is wider in gauge has the people talking about the sector once more. It is the most outstanding of the ongoing developments in the sector and in just over three years of operation, the new line has seen the sector win back a substantive chunk of the passenger and freight volumes. Operations on the line mainly carried out through Madaraka Express Passenger and Freight Services has seen both passengers and shippers flock back to the reliable rail transport.
Metre Gauge Railway Line
Even with the modern and seemingly superior infrastructure in place, the Lunatic line refuses to give way and continues to prove that it has more lives than the proverbial nine (9) lives of a cat. The line continues to be relied upon on more than one front and is playing a critical role in the transport and logistics chain in the country.
Nairobi Commuter Rail Service
The Nairobi Commuter Rail Service is one of most enduring facets of the lunatic line. Currently, the network deployed under commuter rail operations transports 20,000 commuters daily between the Nairobi Central station and Ruiru, Kikuyu, Syokimau, Embakasi and the SGE Nairobi Terminus. It is a viable transport solution that aims to meet the needs of citizens for greater mobility by providing a transport solution that is safe, reliable and affordable.
Beginning 2010, the service has been undergoing major infrastructure changes to integrate and expand its different components with an aim to modernize and upgrade the existing infrastructure. The main components of the upgrade are construction and modernization of new and existing stations, refurbishing rolling stock and planned rehabilitation of four existing lines namely Nairobi Central station (NCS) to Ruiru, NCS to Embakasi Village, NCS to Kikuyu and NCS to Athi River.
Another key component of development under the Nairobi Commuter Rail Service is the planned construction of the Nairobi to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport Line. This will be a dedicated line for commuters who wish to access the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and vice versa. This development gels in well with the planned opening up of public transport corridors in a bid to ease congestion and enhance transportation of the masses.
Nairobi to Nanyuki Line
The other facet of the lunatic line which is experiencing a new wave of favor is the Nairobi to Nanyuki line. Initiated by the Governors from the Central region of Kenya and with the blessings of the Central government, plans to revive rail transport services between Nairobi and Nanyuki are underway. The line will be relied upon to transport mainly fuel and petroleum products alongside other items from the agriculture rich region. Passengers too will enjoy a ride, traversing regions endowed with scenic features further boosting tourism in the Mount Kenya region
Refitted MV Uhuru
Another aspect of Metre Gauge Railway operations in Kenya that is currently on track apropos revival of operations is the refitted MV Uhuru. The vessel facilitated cross border trade between Jinja and Kampala in Uganda; and Mwanza and Musoma in Tanzania from 1966 to 2007. Today, a shiny and glowing refitted MV Uhuru ship lies docked at Kisumu Port awaiting the green light to sail once again a feat that will herald the resurrection of transport and trade in the Great Lakes region. The development encompasses a 12 kilometre new line to the Kenya Pipeline Jetty in Kisumu from where fuel shall be loaded onto the fuel tank wagons and railed to the ships for onward transportation to Uganda and Tanzania.
With the completion and successful operation of the outlined ongoing developments in the sector, the future is definitely poised to be better. Many benefits are already being realized from the sector especially on the employment front where thousands of youth have been gainfully engaged by the sector. Trade has also been boosted with the acquisition of inputs required to implement the initiatives. The revival of the railway that has been neglected for years is expected to open up Mount Kenya and once revived, traders and farmers would easily and cost-effectively transport their products. Once it’s rehabilitated and operationalized, it will be a source of revenue to the government besides towns along it getting busier and creation of formal and informal jobs. The rail transport sector is slowly getting its mojo back and set to bring economic, geographic, demographic and political transformation.