When President Uhuru Kenyatta takes the inaugural ride aboard the high speed Standard Gauge Railway train on May 31, the symbolic journey from Mombasa to Nairobi will usher a new dawn for Kenya and mark the beginning of a revolutionized transport sector in the country.
The launch of the new train service whose key pillars include speed, reliability and competitive pricing coincides closely with the historic June 1 Madaraka Day celebrations when Kenya attained internal-self-rule from the British colonialists.
As Kenyans celebrate the 54thanniversary of internal self governance, they will also be celebrating the replacement of the over 100 years old Nairobi-Mombasa railway line and a fleet of aged , rickety and unreliable locomotives and wagons whose services are associated with delay , unpredictability and costly breakdowns.
The launch of the modern Mombasa-Nairobi train service that runs at an average speed of 120 km/hour successfully brings to an end a 42-month journey that begun on November 28, 2013 when President Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto performed the ground breaking ceremony for phase one of the new SGR railway in Mombasa.
The 472 km SGR Railway line between Mombasa and Nairobi is Kenya’s largest single infrastructure project since independence, constructed at a cost of Sh327 billion co-financed through commercial and semi-concessional loans from China and the Government of Kenya.
It is one of the key Jubilee Administration’s promises under the improvement of infrastructure sector that also includes the upgrading of the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, the Mombasa port and the LAPSSET project.
The Stretch between Mombasa and Nairobi marks the first part of the two-phase project. Funding for the first section of SGR’s second phase (Phase 2A) between Nairobi and Naivasha has already been secured from China.
Phase 2B of this critical infrastructural and economic artery runs between Naivasha, Narok, Bomet, Nyamira and Kisumu including the development of a new high capacity port at Kisumu. Phase 2C of the SGR connects Kisumu and Malaba through Yala and Mumias.
The Mombasa-Nairobi phase of the project which has been completed on budget and 18 months ahead of schedule has created more than 30,000 direct jobs and an additional 10,000 indirect ones.
The new train service takes between four and a half hours (Express Service) to five hours ( Inter-County Service) from Nairobi to Mombasa cutting the time between the two cities from 9 hours by bus and 12 hours by the old and derelict trains.
Nairobi and Mombasa are the main termini of the ultra-modern SGR line with another 31 stations in-between. These termini include seven inter-mediate stations at Mariakani, Miasenyi, Voi, Mtito-Andei, Kibwezi, Emali and Athi- River where the Inter-County train will make 10-minute stop-overs as it snakes to either Nairobi or Mombasa , cruising at 120 km per hour.
All the stations have been constructed with unique designs that bring together the best of modern Chinese architecture , blended with an Africa touch and finished with a Kenyan style. Besides the 10 stations, there are an additional 24 crossing (passing ) stations along the line.
The latter sub-stations incorporate Signal building towers, Pump house for water wells, Comprehensive workshop buildings, duty and guard rooms.
The Mombasa and Nairobi termini are the most majestic with the Mombasa terminus giving the coastline a new sense of architectural beauty and a new wonder to behold along the costal region. The two termini have unique internal fittings including escalators and boarding ramps.
According to the Kenya Railways Managing Director Atanas Kariuki Maina, the new passenger train service will provide both the express and the Inter-County service that makes brief stop-overs at all the seven major stations.
The MD says they are currently working on the rates-both fares and freight –ahead of the commencement of services on June 1, a day after the launch on May 31.
At optimal operations, the SGR cargo train has a haulage capacity of 4,000 tonnes ( 216 TEUS) including oil tankers, open and flat wagons . The train is designed to haul double stacked containers with designated speed of 80 km per hour. The freight capacity of the SGR line is 22 million tonnes per annum.
The passenger train has a capacity of 1260 passengers at optimal operations including 118 passengers in each of the Economy Class coaches, 72 travellers in each of the First Class cars and 34 in the Premier Business Coaches. The passenger train is designed for Double-decker passenger cars as need arises.
Besides the thousands of jobs created, the efficiency and cutting on time in which passengers and goods can get to their destinations, many other benefits accrue from the new SGR service.
These include safety of the trains , decongesting the roads especially by removing trailers from the highways, speed of the train (very few vehicles can rival the train on speed) and reduced pollution associated with the trailers and the derelict locomotives.
It also means there will be fewer accidents on the Mombasa-Nairobi highway attributed to the trailers, reduced destruction of the roads occasioned by overloaded trucks, reduced overall cost of doing business, low trarrifs, reduced cost of goods in the up-country markets and a higher Gross Domestic Product.
Other socio-economic benefits accruing from the SGR include Corporate Social Responsibility where the Contractor (China Road and Bridges Corporation, CRBC) has engaged in various CSR initiatives that have positively impacted on the lives of residents of the seven counties traversed by the SGR line.
These Counties include Nairobi, Machakos, Kajiado, Makueni, Taita Taveta, Kwale and Mombasa.
Increased Economic activities along the project’s corridor including the growth of industries, hotel establishments, hardware outlets, rental properties, warehouses and transport services have all become some of the major businesses.
Improved Public services and infrastructure, Decongestion of the Mombasa port, community well being and development are some of the other socio-economic benefits that are immediate offshoots of the new project.
Land use along the SGR corridor has majorly been impacted with the project’s implementation serving to attract new real estate developments particularly in the major urban centres.
Most importantly is the area of training, skills development and Technology transfer. An estimated 15,000 Engineers , technicians, mechanics, electricians and carpenters among other artisans have been trained (others continue to be trained) during the construction of the SGR and are available for subsequent local and regional development now that the Mombasa-Nairobi sector is complete.
Other salient features of t the SGR project include the uniformity of the entire line. The uniform design and specification permits seamless operations across borders.
Although the trains will initially run on diesel, they are also designed for future electrification once the entire line is adequately electrified and supplied with enough electric energy sources.
In areas where the SGR traverses National Parks and animal habitants, these areas have been ring-fenced on both sides of the line with adequate underpasses to allow easy movement of the animals across their natural ecosystem.
For those who have already taken the SGR test ride to either Mombasa or Nairobi, there is a general consensus that the new service is not only smooth compared to the strained rumblings of the old locomotives but is also seamlessly efficient and is likely to attract tourists, school groups and the routine travellers looking for class and relaxed weekend sojourns to the coast.
They all agree the new SGR service re-defines the whole experience about railway passenger transport and ,if sustained, is likely to pose a major threat to the bus companies plying between Nairobi and Mombasa.
The train rides are also likely to be very popular with school tours for students looking to view wild animals at close range especially in the Nairobi National Park where the traveller starts appreciating the beauty of Kenya.
Business people used to the efficient services offered by the air-hostesses in various airlines will also appreciate similar services being provided by the highly trained and friendly stewardesses whose operating word is Etiquette to all the passengers.
Although the passenger service commences on June 1, freight services will not begin until December when the expansion and modernization of the Nairobi Inland Container Depot is expected to be completed.
A high delegation of senior China State Council Officials including two ministers, one Vice Minister will form part of President Kenyatta’s entourage as Kenya launches what is billed to be the country’s backbone of its multi-modal infrastructure development project.
Others joining the president in the inaugural SGR train ride include senior government officials, key corporate leaders and media people.