Kenya revives its colonial rail system to meet its modern needs

A private company sees the country's dilapidated railways as an opportunity to make a profit and meet Kenyans needs for faster transportation.

By , Correspondent

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    A school boy looks out of the train window as commuters disembark to the industrial area of Nairobi.
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This post is part of the Daily Dispatches project chronicling life in Nairobi, Kenya throughout the month of April.

ON THE 06:40am TO NAIROBI – We pull slowly out of Athi River station, leaving behind the run-down railroad shed that is now home to the Jesus Victory Center and a tinshack kindergarten.

Ahead, an hour-long commute, through the Athi plains once swarming with wildlife, beneath final approach to the international airport, through the smoggy iron roof slums and the industrial area, and into the heart of Nairobi.

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“Ah, we love this thing,” smiles Steve Nyahe, 40, a graphic designer, who like most aboard the train used to have to sit cramped in a 14-seat "matatu" minibus taxi to town, stalled in jams and pollution, for two hours or more.

“She keeps time, she takes me to work in less than one hour, she’s cut my travel costs by 50 percent. Who can complain?”

The 6:40 a.m. from Athi River, 17 stops into Nairobi, is one of a raft of new peak time services to and from the city, more than doubling the total from 8 to 18 since March 1.

Passenger numbers have jumped 45 percent since then, to 716,922 last month, according to the privatized firm now running Kenya’s railroads.

More than 2,300 of them use the Athi River service each day – the equivalent of more than 164 squeezed minibus taxis.

Onboard the 6:40 a.m., Patricia Wachira, a customer services executive for an agrochemicals company, sat reading her Bible, the early morning sun streaming through the windows.

“When I heard that they were bringing a train, I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “A neighbor told me it was true, when I first used this route, just a month ago, it was my first time to be on a train.

“It is so different from the matatu, it’s comfortable, there’s no hassle, no loud noise, no jams, no pollution. There was no way I could read my Bible on the matatu. I arrive at work fresh, and it’s quicker. I have an extra hour in my day.”

Beside her, Stella Vanessa, 21, and Tracy Nderitu, 22, colleagues at a real estate agency, shared a vanity mirror to apply their make up.

“It’s great, that’s all I need to say,” said Nderitu. “We needed this thing very much, it’s there in every other country, it was about time we had it here in Kenya. The only question is, why did they wait for so long?”

In fact, revolutionary as taking the train seems to these commuters, the rails they’re riding on are older even than the country of Kenya itself. They are the reason Nairobi exists.

Way back in the late 19th century, ox-drawn wagons were used to ferry raw materials from the interior for export via to ships waiting at Kenya’s coast.

Adventurous British businesses flourishing in neighboring Uganda successfully petitioned the parliament in London to build a rail line to speed up the 900-mile journey.

The equivalent of $394 million was allocated for the audacious project, which would include carving railroads up and down the sometimes 45° escarpments of the Rift Valley that slices through in Kenya’s center.

Work started in 1896, and almost instantly hit disaster. At least 30 indentured Indian and African laborers had lost their lives to the infamous "Man-Eaters of Tsavo," a pair of male lions which attacked work camps. Hundreds died as engineers struggled to bridge ravines and negotiate the sharp gradients. Malaria cut down hundreds more.

What started as an expression of Britain’s imperial might ended in near fiasco. Having failed even to reach the Ugandan border, construction stopped in western Kenya as costs spiraled past $729 million.

Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, later put a typically brave face on his description of the railroad construction as ‘one of the finest expositions [of] the British art of ‘muddling through’.”

Opposition politicians at the time vehemently disagreed, labeling the project the "Lunatic Line."

But what was left behind, at least, was a link between the Indian Ocean and Kenya’s interior. And, near the railroad’s midpoint, Nairobi.

Kenya’s capital exists only because engineers were forced to pause here, in an empty swampland named Nyrobe by Masai herdsmen, as they prepared their assault across the Rift Valley.

What started as a railhead, with workers camping under canvas, gave birth to today’s still-growing city of four million people. From the city, Kenya itself grew, a country with borders, a currency, an administration.

Also born at the same time was a new concept. That an elite – initially the whites, later Kenya’s own post-independence big men – was entitled to take from the powerless poor whatever was their whim.

To earn back some of their outlay, the British needed businesses here in their new colony, producing materials and goods to be carried down to the coast for export.

To do this, the government in London offered an acre of prime farmland, land used for millennia by Kenya’s indigenous people, for a penny. Soon hundreds, then thousands, of British settlers arrived.

“If you really think about it, this railway is the source of all our problems,” said Charles Owino, 51, reading his Daily Nation at Nairobi station.

“That land was the Africans’. They were forced out, they moved to into other tribes’ lands and took over. That is the root cause of all election violence we see today, the fight over land. Even look where the clashes happen, they are in towns all along the railway line.”

Back on the 6:40 a.m. from Athi River, we’re starting to see evidence of the fallout from that entrenched, institutionalized, body politic of corruption.

We’re passing through the slums that ring the city center. Tin shacks crowd muddy lanes. Smoke from charcoal cooking fires hazes the morning air. Ungainly marabou storks circle above chaotic dumpsites.

Millions today live here in these unplanned settlements, ignored by successive governments more concerned with lining their pockets than socially serving the worst-off in this stratified society.

The fate of the railroads, once Kenya’s largest employer, once running scores of trains along 1,726 miles of track, mirrors the country’s near-collapse under the rule of Daniel Arap Moi, the former president.

Today, fewer than 600 miles are operational, and decades of poor maintenance mean that maximum speeds are down to around 30 m.p.h. Derailments, sometimes fatal, are common. Some 90 percent of Kenya’s freight, which should be the backbone of any rail system, is moved by road.

“You know the problem here was management,” said one senior official with 20 years experience at Kenya Railways. “Of course if you are asked to steal money for somebody, you also steal some for yourself. This went all throughout the company. It has brought us to where we are today.”

Where we are today is what keeps Fred Owino, Daniel Ongombe and Daniel Kamau busy.

Between them, the trio in charge of the locomotive workshop at Nairobi Train Station have 47 years of experience maintaining the giant General Electric 12-cylinder train engines, bolted together in the early 1970s in Erie, Pennsylvania.

When Daily Dispatches visited, Engine No. 9312 had just spent the night pulling a dozen carriages up from the coast. Within an hour, it was due out again, to the far side of Kenya at Malaba on the border with Uganda.

Kamau, working swiftly, greased the cylinder head. Ongombe, up in the cab, was checking engine pressure, his eyes scanning the spider’s web of wires regulating the engine’s scarce electronics.

“I can say that the best part of the job is finding a locomotive with very complicated problems, and fixing it ahead of time,” says Owino, the shift foreman.

His 17-year-old son, raised around the railways, is studying hard to follow his father’s footsteps into this workshop. “That will make me very, very proud,” he beams. His smile then slips a little. “I can only hope that there is more advancement and he gets to work on a modern railways system. It’s coming, I’m sure.”

It’s Brown M. Ondego’s job to make that happen. He is executive chairman of Rift Valley Railways (RVR), the private firm which won the concession to upgrade the Kenyan and Ugandan rail network. He took over from the first management team, who struggled to bring any improvements.

“It was collapsing, it had literally failed,” said Ondego, of his predecessors’ approach.

“The management was not up to speed, and they failed to bring in capital to invest, and it means it was, and still is, a fairly dilapidated network.”

Freight is his key focus, but an easy PR win for RVR was the commuter services. “We were not contractually obliged to take that up, but we did it basically because of the demand from the public,” says Ondego. “I think with that and other moves on our part, you’re starting to see a tremendous improvement.”

As the 6:40 a.m. pulled in to Nairobi Station’s Platform 2 a little over an hour after leaving Athi River, the swirl of commuters decanting out and filing towards the station exit would suggest Ondego and his team are doing something right.

Sharp-suited businesswomen, kids in school uniforms, young guys in low-slung jeans on smartphones and men in jackets and ties all swarmed off the train, leaving it empty save for the cleaners with their brushes and buckets.

Alongside RVR’s promises of more commuter routes, more stations, refurbished engines and carriages, the government has drawn up plans for a light-rail system from Nairobi’s suburbs to and around its center.

Easing access into this massively congested city, clearing some of its traffic bottlenecks, bringing goods here cheaper, all will springboard Nairobi’s growth.

But glance back the other way, into the rail sidings, where long convoys of container cars stand idly, slowly rusting in the sun. Listen as the clang of hammer against iron drifts in from the workshop in the distance, where Fred Owino and his gang work on.

Easy fixes like the commuter lines are all very well and very welcomed. But Kenya’s railways have a long climb ahead of them to reach the long-promised glorious new era.

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