Kenya's Standard Gauge Railway

Riding Kenya’s US$3.2 Billion Railway

A gauntlet of police, soldiers, and private security officers extends from the Nairobi Terminus car park, through its ticket office and up to the waiting area. By the time I get on the train, I have been patted down three times, my bag has been scanned twice, and we have both been sniffed by dogs.

For all that, it feels perfunctory, and I have the impression the impressive security apparatus is more about keeping out street hawkers and pickpockets, rather than drug runners and Al-Shabaab. It is a humourless experience, with barked orders and stony faces. Nevertheless, most passengers don’t seem to mind. The train is still in its first year, and the majority of those boarding it are first-timers. They murmur excitedly about the ride and take photos in the terminal.

A quick scan of the queues shows a diverse range of Kenyan, Kenyan-Indian and Chinese families, European couples, and single Kenyan men. I booked too late for an economy seat and found myself in the first class waiting area, roped off from the rest of the room. I still have forty hours of research planned on the other side of that rope, but undoubtedly this has skewed the accounts I have been exposed to. Here are some of them:

"We have the need for speed"

Passengers I spoke to seemed more impressed by the engine’s 120 km/h maximum speed than by the five-hour journey time to the coast. I think whoever designed the SGR’s interior predicted this, and a digital sign at the end of each carriage proudly displays how fast it is moving.

The train runs on diesel, and plans to convert it to an electric line were abandoned earlier this year. This has resulted in negative comparisons with the new Ethiopian and Moroccan railways. The streamlined, bullet-style engines in other African states were the envy of Kenyan passengers, and I get the feeling if the SGR didn’t run at the speed it does these complaints would be louder. 120 km/h seems to do the job, but only just.

“Especially in first class, it is so comfortable”

Deep, reclining red chairs, glossy Kenyan magazines, and the open restaurant car, all make for a very pleasant way to spend five hours. In first class, a single corridor separates pairs of seats, each with an abundance of leg and elbow room. These pairs can swivel on a central pivot to face the seats behind, creating knee-clashing family spaces for four. Out of the window, baboons and elephants wander Tsavo national park, framed by the glacial peaks of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Unfortunately, the SGR is only one part of the journey between Nairobi and Mombasa, and I spent over two hours in traffic and over 2000 Ksh in taxis -almost the cost again of the first class ticket- getting to the train stations at either end of the line. With railway stations already in place in the central districts of both cities, passengers were visibly irritated to be dropped off so far outside of town.

“They stole so much money”

Considering the controversies that have dogged the SGR’s funding, I was not surprised to hear these complaints. The cost of the Nairobi – Mombasa line was originally estimated at approximately 200 billion Ksh. In the end, a build-operate-transfer agreement was made with the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), funded by a 327 billion Ksh loan from China’s EXIM bank. That’s over $3.26 billion USD.

Why inflate the costs? According to some passengers the benefits were clear on both sides. EXIM bank gets an unrepayable loan on which it can charge interest permanently, while the CRBC controls major sections of Kenyan infrastructure. The government’s claim that the loan would be repaid within four years was roundly dismissed as absurd. So was the claim that a handover from Chinese to Kenyan operators would occur any time soon.

There is a casual cynicism in the way many Kenyans describe the government’s motives for taking on this debt. In the train’s dining car, passengers blamed ‘tenderpreneurs’ for pushing up the total costs. Private organisations in the country have built vast fortunes acting as brokers in government tenders, charging anywhere between ten and fifteen percent of the total for their services.

Discussions of land compensation, engine procurement, and the provision of local building materials, almost inevitably concluded with accusations that the government’s money had been ‘eaten’. As with Raila Odinga’s election promise to track down those responsible, however, these accusations were accompanied by no names. If money did go missing – as most here take for granted – the actual practices and individuals were well shielded from the public eye. Now that Odinga and President Kenyatta have shaken hands, we may never know.

The feeling that the train’s budget was siphoned into private pockets is not helped by some of its clumsier features. Google translate seems to have had a heavy hand in the Chinese sign translations. Crossing through the ticket barriers in Nairobi, warnings on the floor scream “DON TSTAND HERE”, and even the official SGR slogan “Connecting Nations, Prospering People” doesn’t sound right to me. After less than a year, the stickers are starting to peel, direction signs are fading, and the taps have stopped working in the terminal toilets.

“They didn’t build this for us”

Ten-dollar passenger tickets won’t be servicing the SGR’s debt any time soon. If it’s going to succeed, the train will need to be funded by hauling freight, an economic priority that doesn’t always work in its passengers’ favour – particularly in the location of its terminuses.

Predictably, bus companies have been among the SGR's biggest victims. One organisation has laid off over fifty drivers in six months, while another has reduced its Nairobi service from seven buses a day to two. Employees I spoke with were convinced the situation could still be changed – that if the government just repaired the road and did something to ease congestion then they could compete with the new trains. Still the feeling in general was demoralised.

Even importers have been frustrated that the service doesn’t benefit them. New government regulations force 40 per cent of all domestic cargo to be handled by the train and not by truck transporters. Fleets of trucks stand idle by Mombasa port, while importers pay at least as much as before to send containers to Nairobi by train and then on to warehouses by road.

So who is the train really for? Certainly not for local traders – the SGR windows are bolted shut and hawkers are banned from its stations. Those even considering selling scrap metal scavenged from the track have been threatened with the death penalty for ‘economic sabotage’. In the dining car, the only obvious winners were the wealthy Kenyan families taking their children on weekend breaks to the coast, and the Chinese operators playing cards in the far corner.

“It's good to take pride in your work”

The SGR’s employee uniforms are colour coded – red for female conductors, blue for their male counterparts, and yellow shirts with patterned hats for the restaurant staff.  All are faultlessly presented, and those I spoke to clearly took a lot of pride in the work.

There is an impressive attention to detail in their every day practices. Suitcase straps are meticulously pushed up into overhead compartment, where each bag is carefully readjusted before departure. Jackets are hung on hooks on the walls, and the floor of the aisle is mopped down twice before reaching Mombasa. I was told that only recently the the staff secured working contracts (86 Ksh per hour with paid leave), and this seems to have contributed to a conspicuously high morale.

The China-Kenya relationship is captivating at this resolution. The flags of the two nations adorn each end of the carriages, and Kenyan operators trained at Jiao Tong University speak Mandarin with their supervisors. Where in the past I’ve sensed some popular suspicion of Chinese construction supervisors in the country, here it seemed completely normalised.

“The train is still changing – it’s too early to know”

Ultimately, the SGR is in its infancy as a passenger line, and many on board (myself included) were keen to take photos and to give it the benefit of the doubt. Already since its launch there have been a number of important changes to its operations – in ticket prices, train schedules, line extensions and the use of online booking and Mpesa payments to secure a seat.

The SGR’s future most likely hangs on the Kenyan government’s dedication to maintaining it. The real test of the railway will come when the hype wears off, it ceases to win votes, and the rest of the taps stop working.

Hugh Lamarque

Research Fellow, The University of Edinburgh