Why Uganda needs a multimodal transport system

Monday November 04 2019

Trailers transport goods across the Uganda-Rwanda border at Katuna. Currently, roads are the major mode of transport used to transport cargo to and from the ports in the region. PHOTO BY ROBERT MUHEREZA

For Uganda to achieve her ambition of becoming the regional distribution or even a production hub, the country will have to upgrade its transport infrastructure into a coordinated, seamless system.

According to an interim study examining the development of a modern and cost-efficient freight logistics system in Uganda, multimodal transport system was zeroed on as the most preferred approach for the country to adopt, because it is the most cost effective compared to other available approaches.

An effective multimodal transport system is one where there is integration, and cross interplay, by the various modes of transport including air transport, marine transport, and land transport. Land transport comprises of road, rail and pipeline transport.

“The multimodal route is cost competitive vis-à-vis the Northern Corridor,” reads a section of the interim report, a position the stakeholders in their discussions agreed with without much hesitation.

Being a land-locked country, Uganda is largely dependent on the regional transportation system to support her international trade endeavours, without which her economy could easily degenerate into abyss.

Uganda is dependent on two major transport corridors for international trade, namely; Northern Corridor – connecting Uganda to the port of Mombasa in Kenya and the Central Corridor – linking Uganda to Dar es Salaam port in Tanzania.


Currently, roads are the major mode of transport used to transport cargo to and from the ports in the region.

But the cost of transportation by road on the Central Corridor is higher than the Northern Corridor because of the distance. The road distance from Dar es Salaam to Kampala is approximately 1,780 Km vis-à-vis the road distance of 1,169 Km from Mombasa to Kampala via Busia.

Uganda’s international trade primarily takes place through the Northern Corridor, which links the country to Mombasa port in Kenya. The trunk transportation infrastructure of the corridor is multimodal and includes the road network, water transport, pipeline and a meter gauge railway system, currently being operated by the Uganda Railways Corporation and Kenya Railways Corporation.

Over the last few years, there have been multiple developments on the Northern Corridor under the tutelage of Northern Corridor Integration Projects (NCIP). The development of a Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) on the Northern Corridor is one such advance.

The SGR has been developed between Nairobi and Mombasa and is operated by Kenya Railways. Further, there are plans to extend it to Kampala via Malaba.


Along with the Northern Corridor, the Central Corridor, extending from Uganda to Dar es Salaam port in Tanzania via Lake Victoria, provides an alternative route for international trade for Uganda.

Uganda’s use of the Central Corridor for international trade has been limited owing to multiple infrastructure-related issues, such as inefficient railway operations, inadequate vessel fleet and terminal infrastructure, among others.

“However, the planned developments, including the state-of-the-art intermodal port Bukasa on Lake Victoria in Uganda and the development of the SGR between Dar es Salaam and Mwanza port in Tanzania, are expected to enhance the competitiveness of this route for Uganda as an alternative to the Northern Corridor,” reads the interim report.

If this comes to fruition, government’s dream in partnership with TMEA of developing a modern and cost-efficient rail freight logistics corridor in Uganda would have been achieved.

The envisaged corridor would primarily focus on two routes, namely; Kasese-Kampala-Tororo and Tororo-Gulu-Packwach. It would also have a positive impact on the region as a whole. The proposed corridor will include operations of the two railway systems, namely, the existing meter gauge railway (MGR) and the proposed SGR system, inland ports including the existing Jinja Pier and Port Bell, and the planned Bukasa inland port.

Bad and good news
Uganda’s transport system hevily depends on roads to move over 90 per cent of freight volumes. This is primarily pegged to limited infrastructure and operational challenges in railway and water transport systems that have kept these modes underutilised in moving cargo volumes.

But continued under-development of the rail transport mode exerts pressure on road transport, leading to transportation inefficiencies and subsequently premature road damage from these heavy loads. This later requires avoidable capital investments in maintenance and rehabilitation, resulting in higher transport costs.

According to the interim report, commissioned by Ministry of Works and Transport, in partnership with TradeMark East Africa (TMEA) whose objective is to have a modern and cost-efficient freight logistics system in Uganda, details some disturbing challenges of the current transportation system.

Issues such as limited operational railway network of 250Km, infrastructure and operational bottlenecks related to water transportation on Lake Victoria, challenges on the rail link between Mwanza and Dar-es-Salaam, must be addressed to achieve the multimodal transport system.

Studies show that rehabilitating the Meter Gauge Railway on Mwanza to Dar es Salaam will resurrect the defunct rail routes, providing network strength to railways in the country.
Developing the Standard Gauge Railway connecting Mombasa to Kampala via Kisumu and Naivasha in Kenya will provide a speedy rail connection to the region. This is in addition to development of the intermodal port at Bukasa that is expected to enhance strengthen the competitiveness of water transport. All these will boost freight demand and the competitiveness of Central Corridor, an oil exploration and setting up of refinery in Uganda.

Speaking about multimodal transport during the launch of the Uganda International Trade Fair concluded recently, President Yoweri Museveni reaffirmed the need for multimodal transport.

He said: “We are working with Kenya and Tanzania to build the railway between Kisumu and Naivasha. Once we reach Kisumu, we shall use water transport to move cargo from there to Jinja, Kataba and then to Rwanda through River Kagera.”

He continued: “That will be in addition to the construction of the railway from Tororo to Lira, joining Southern Sudan. With that the problem of transport will be solved. We shall also have the railway connect to Dar-es -salaam and Mwanza and then use water transport from there to bring cargo here.”

Analysts have their say (here I can have their pictures if you want-Mugshot)
Speaking to journalists, the coordinator, National Logistics Platform (NLP), Ms Diana Karimba said rail operations have been a nightmare.

“The rail network of 1,266km has been reduced to about 330km, with the service provided being intermittent. This has caused delays and over reliance on road transport resulting in higher transport costs. So the need for a cost efficient rail freight system cannot be over emphasised in developing an intermodal transport system. This will greatly contribute to our objective of transforming Uganda into a Distribution Hub,” Ms Karimba said.

Ms Sandra Kirenga, an economist and manager programmes TMEA, believes that without the right coordination of transport infrastructure, very little will be achieved in turning the country into a hub for trade, distribution and production.

She said: “To achieve efficiency at a reasonable cost, multimodal transport system is the way to go.”


A refurbished MV Kalangala docks at Nakiwogo pier after undergoing annual mandatory servicing on May 8, 2018. The development of Bukasa port is expected to enhance intermodal operations and strengthen the competitiveness of water transport. Photo by Eve Muganga

Assistant Commissioner Air and Road Transport services at the Works Ministry Nelson Rwenaga, said government’s focus has been turned to seamless connection of rail and water transport after years of heavy investment in road infrastructure.