President Museveni, while addressing members of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) who converged in Kampala for the 3rd meeting of the 2nd Assembly, which ran from February 7 to February 19, 2010, promised to use the army to rebuild Uganda’s railway network.
“We set up an engineering brigade with capacity to carry out major engineering tasks, including building infrastructure. We shall use them to build the railway,” he said.
Pursuant to that in September that year, a team comprised of officers from the US Army Africa and SDDC Transport Engineering Agency were in the country to assess the UPDF engineers’ capability to rehabilitate the network.
Some of the other tasks that the team which included logisticians undertook was to assess the operational status of the Uganda railway system and identify potential sites for training and repair operations in line with a provisional five year reconstruction plan for the railway system.
The assessment team, which also comprised of Ugandans such as Mr Daudi Murungi, Brig George Etyang, Lt Col, Luke Arikosi and Kyamugambi Kasingye toured the Railway repair facility in Nalukolongo in Kampala and assessed the railway stations and infrastructure in Jinja, Tororo, Mbale, Kumi, Soroti, Lira and Gulu and the rolling stock.
It found that 1,000 wagons and 35 diesel hydraulic locomotives, could be serviced and used, but found that the degrees of the network varied from region to region.
Facilities in the South in the East were found to be “still fully functioning and operating in the Jinja-Tororo area”, but not so for those along the line from Gulu to Pakwach, which were found to be “in general disrepair, a result of the area being for years under the control of the Lords’ Resistance Army”.
In other areas such as Busoga Sub-region, what used to be known as the Busoga railway, a line that stretched from Jinja to Kamuli and Kaliro via Namwendwa, had been vandalised by metal scrap dealers for feeding into the various steel rolling mills.
So acute had the problem of vandalism become by June 2008 that Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania suspended trade in export of metal scrap.
Theft of vandalism had been reported along the Iganga-Jinja railway route and also parts of the Rift Valley in Kenya and Mombasa with vandals targeting mostly railways slippers, block keys, control blocks and weather plates.
A month after that assessment and as the country prepared for the 2011 general elections, the promise was repeated in the 241 page manifesto for the period 2011 and 2015, which ends with a commitment by the party to focus on “removing the most binding constraints that hamper socio-economic transformation for Uganda to take off from being a third world to a middle income country”.
The party promised that if Ugandans were to hand it a fresh mandate, it would be concentrating on 13 major programmes, including among others, expanding power generation, developing the petroleum infrastructure, irrigation, industrialisation and investments in agriculture and the road transport sector.
In number three on the list of the 13 programmes was the promise of “Repairing the railway using UPDF Engineering Brigade”.
By the time the manifesto was launched at the International Conference Center, there had already been a lot of talk about revival of the local railway transport network.
On June 8, 2011 when he gave the State of the Nation address at the opening of the 9th Parliament, Mr Museveni gave an update of work in the railways sector.
“The feasibility study for repairing and upgrading Tororo-Pakwach railway line was completed and the study for Kampala-Kasese line is on-going. During the Financial Year 2011/2012, the feasibility study for upgrading Kampala-Kasese railway line will be completed and the study for the Kenya-Uganda standard gauge railway line will also commence,” he said.
The repeated promises, the US Army Africa Command’s assessment exercise and Mr Museveni’s talk about feasibility studies gave the impression that work would be commencing that very year, but nothing happened.
Hope was reignited in October 2012 when it was announced that having completed work on construction of Kololo Independence grounds, the UPDF’s Engineering Corps would embark on the rebuilding of the Western and North Western sections of the Railway.
The then army spokesperson, Mr Felix Kulayigye, was quoted by sections of the local media saying that work was expected to begin early in 2013, but that never happened.
It is, however, worth noting that 2010 and 2011 were not the first years in which there had been talk of reconstructing the local railway network.
Late in February 2007, Parliament had approved a government request to borrow $26.4m from the World Bank to make improvements to among other things the railways line from Tororo to Pakwach via Mbale, which was meant to be implemented by the Ministry of Works and Transport, but no work was done.
Failure by the government to keep its promise has triggered off a chain of adverse developments in the transport sector.
One of the biggest arguments in favour of railway transport is that it presents the possibility of movement of bulk quantities of goods across long distances and on a cheap without limitations imposed by laws such as the Vehicle Load Control Act 2002, which requires vehicles hauling goods weighting more than three and a half tonnes to be subjected to axle load control.
In the absence of railway transport, any person moving goods in excess of the 56 tonnes would have to break the consignment into small portions, which means paying more and increasing the cost of doing business, which is one of the challenges to the economy.
Manufacturers and importers usually pass on the cost to the consumers which means higher prices for goods that would have perhaps been cheaper.
The situation stretches to agriculture too. Because railway transport was operational back in the 1980s farmers in for example Kasese used to be able to get good prices for their Irish potatoes and beans, which would in turn be transported to markets in Kampala on a cheap and on a fast.
The items were cheaper because the cost of transport was not as high as it is today and the farmers are no longer getting good prices.
The same applies to Busoga where the Busoga line is not helping in the marketing of cotton, beans, coffee and others.
The situation has also meant that there are many more vehicles on the roads which has led to congestion and a sharp increment in the road maintenance bills.
Inactivity in the railways sector has meant that vast chunks of Uganda Railways Corporation land, which would have been used for expansion have either been encroached on or given away to so called investors under mysterious circumstances.
The European Union recently announced that it would make available €21.5m (approximately Shs96b) from the 11th European Development Fund to for work on the Tororo Pakwach Railway, which the EU Head of Delegation, Mr Attiio Pacifici, described as “a friendly transport infrastructure”.
The Managing Director of Uganda Railways Corporation (URC), Mr Charles Kateeba, told Daily Monitor that work is expected to begin very soon.
“The designs for the Tororo-Pakwach line are complete. The EU is directing involved in the procurement process and it has already put out the word to invite bids for it. We expect work on the section between Tororo and Gulu to have started by the end of the year,” Mr Kateba.
“The Western Uganda line is still on hold. The service line had expired and was due for reconstruction. We had thought we could forget it and concentrate on construction of a Standard Gauge railway, but now that that is taking long, we might restoring it to interim status,” he added.
While presenting the budget for the Financial Year 2013/2014, the then Minister for Finance and Economic Planning, Ms Maria Kiwanuka, harped away at how the development of the lake and water transport sector was at the centre of government’s plans to achieve economic development and fostering regional cooperation and integration.
Ms Kiwanuka said government intended to revive lake water transport with special emphasis on rebuilding infrastructure on Lake Victoria and providing them with appropriate technologies to enable it become a major water way.
A move in that direction, she said, would ensure that Uganda got a strategic alternative route to the sea and also facilitate bulk movement of agricultural produce. That has not happened, but it is not too late to pick up the plan from the shelves where it is no doubt picking up layers of dust and revisit it with a view of tweaking it to incorporate the aspect of railway transport.
Besides lowering the cost of internal transport, which would most probably translate into a reduction in the cost of doing business, increased profitability for the business communities and stimulate the economy. It would also most probably help reduce by more than half, what Uganda has been spending on maintenance of its roads. Government needs to find a way of fixing the railway network. The time is now.