About two years ago, I was on luxury bus from Nairobi to Malindi. These buses are dubbed luxury mainly because you are given a bottle of water as you set off, you can recline your seat and stretch your legs and in a few cases you can connect to the free wifi and spend time liking random Facebook or Instagram posts as you wait for sleep to kick in.
For some reason this particular bus had the wifi only as graffiti on the body and not working at all. That allowed me to do what normal travellers do – look out of the window. As the engine revved I could see huge construction lights on my left as workers toiled even in the night to ensure that the standard gauge railway becomes the reality it is today. I thought about whether they would finish on time and whether I would get a chance to enjoy the fruits of their sweat at some point.
Well, Kenya’s President finally launched the Madaraka Express or what many still refer to as the SGR train, from Mombasa to Nairobi. He flagged off a cargo train and the next day he rode on the passenger train. The passenger train is the one that brought most excitement given to the fact that it covers the journey in a mere four and half hours instead of the over nine hours that the luxury buses need.
By international standards it is not a fast train, just a normal train (hence the word Standard in SGR) because the previous option of the Metre gauge railway was more than 100 years of old technology. The launch of the train kicked of a train of thoughts for someone of us. For starters it was commendable that the president’s team listened to the cries of a vlogger and got the train a name (Madaraka instead of SGR the technology).
The fact that a message posted on YouTube was acted upon in such a short time is proof of the power of social media in this era. Still on the name, I think Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and even Tanzania will need to start thinking of a name for their version of the SGR instead of waiting for another YouTube post.
Another thought doing the rounds now, in my head at least, is what will now happen to the old meter gauge railway run by Rift Valley Railways? Will it be left at the mercy of scrap dealers? Will the land be grabbed by land grabbers? If it remains, will still be profitable to run yet there is a cheaper and faster option?
This being an election year in Kenya, the launch of the Madaraka had to taken on a political hue. It was well timed just before Madaraka Day and those who handled the launch in Mombasa made sure that Mombasa’s popular but controversial governor Ali Hassan Joho was kept away to avoid another of his clashes with the president. This project is likely to be what President Kenyatta leaves as his legacy they way Mzee Kibaki lays claim to the Thika Super Highway among other projects.
What is now left is ensuring that it is a success and is run successfully. It is often argued that the old train was sabotaged by businessmen close to the Moi presidency who had truck businesses to run. And that is how we ended up with so many cargo moving trucks on our roads while the train was rotting away quietly. It will be interesting to see how the truck business especially in Mombasa, evolves with the Madaraka Express in place.
Another thought running through my mind is whether we (Kenyans or East Africans) shall do a good job at maintaining this train service without relying on the Chinese. One may argue that the Chinese are here to stay but that is a topic for another day. The culture of maintaining things is one that we tend to struggle with but one we must improve on.
We need to train enough people to ensure that these facilities are well maintained instead of only threatening to hang those who vandalise them. Real ownership will be when we can use and maintain the facility without having to ask the Chinese to ‘assist’ us every time. It would also be great to have light rails in the cities and to airports in order to tame the growing urban traffic congestion. I actually think I need a ride on this Madaraka to fine tune my thoughts.Follow https://twitter.com/ssojo81