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.
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“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.”Skip to next paragraph
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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.