In his various national speeches and the NRM’s tenure manifestos, President Museveni has often spoken passionately about the need to revitalise the railway sector as part of the ruling party’s national infrastructural development agenda to attract investments in the country and improve socio-economic livelihoods of Ugandans.
Apparent tangible results on this seem to be abysmal. The Rift Valley Railways (RVR) Concession that took over from the defunct Uganda Railways Corporation has not lived up to government’s expectations. Their tonnage haulage is often hampered by poor tracks, leading to speed restrictions hence causing unnecessary delays in delivery of goods to clients, coupled with limited number of functional locomotives.
However, in a recent move, the struggling RVR reportedly received $70 million (about Shs185 billion) to facilitate its business operations. Whether these funds will translate into actualising the President’s talk on a vibrant railway remains a matter for RVR to deliver. As part of the benefits from these funds, the public will expect RVR to help in facilitating trade and socio-economic development in the country.
Indeed, the planned re-introduction of passenger train services in December as per recent announcement by RVR and Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) in a grand plan to ease congestion and traffic will be a tangible benefit to the people of Kampala. If KCCA’s estimates of 10,000 passengers per day comes to fruition, then that is likely to translate in reduction of traffic jam on both Kampala-Namanve , Kampala- Natete and later Kampala - Luzira routes. On the other hand, the improvement of the Mombasa – Nairobi and Nairobi- Kampala tracks with standard gauges will bolster the transportation of goods in bulk as opposed to road transport. If these initial plans for RVR’s Shs185 billion are actualised, it will act as a precursor to popularising the idea of having a grand functioning railway sector that would hopefully culminate into Uganda eventually attaining its dream of an electric railway as the President has often stated!
In their effort to revitalise the railways though, the concessionaire may have to continue grappling with some challenges. The company is likely to struggle to get the return on investments given the stiff competition from the well-established and fast road transport in addition to trying to manage the high costs of maintaining the railways.
Important to note however, is the fact that it is not only Uganda that is going through the predicaments of a dying railway sector. Neglect of the sector by most African governments contributed and continues to do so, to the demise of the sector. A comparative study carried out on the performance of the railways in sub-Saharan Africa by the World Bank, points to rapid expansion of the road transport and the slow response of railways to adapt to new market conditions as some of the major reasons that have caused dramatic traffic decline in the rail transport.
During the last 50 years, in Africa as throughout the world, governments invested predominantly in road infrastructure improvement, neglecting railways as the road transport expanded rapidly due to the aggressive development of the automobile. By the 1990s, most of the African railways except South Africa were in bad shape, requiring large investments in infrastructure and rolling stock, and a new business-oriented approach to their activities.
With these circumstances in mind, therefore, and with Shs185 billion at hand, it’s now over to RVR to ignite the President’s dream for a vibrant ‘iron snake’ roaring and smoking its way not only in Uganda but also through Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan.
Mundua is lecturer of Media Studies, Bayan University College, Middle East. [email protected]