East African railways: Old, new can co-exist

Locomotives in Kampala. Uganda has secured a Shs1.1 trillion loan to renovate the Kampala-Malaba MGR. PHOTO/ FILE

What you need to know:

  • In this explainer, Derrick Kiyonga finds out whether the century-old metre gauge railway and its much-vaunted cousin—the standard gauge railway—can live side by side.

Has railway transport in East Africa got its groove back?      
Railway transport, which traded as the East African Railways Cooperation (EARC), found itself in the doldrums after the collapse of the East African Community in 1977. In 2009, the East African Railways Master Plan was crafted with carriage of freight on the railways marked as key. The railways would also be used for urban transport in major cities and for medium-distance intercity passenger transport. 

The idea was to rejuvenate existing railways serving Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda before extending them firstly to Rwanda as well as Burundi and ultimately South Sudan, Ethiopia, and elsewhere. The thrust of the strategy was, in the short-term, to pull the railways back from the abyss through public-private-partnerships. This would be done by restoring reliable service on the trunk lines (Mombasa-Kampala, Dar-es-Salaam-Mwanza, and Dar-es-Salaam-Zambia).

The medium-term strategy was to improve the level of service on the trunk lines, extend the network to Rwanda/Burundi, and carry out feasibility studies for the other line extensions identified by the Task Force in 2004-2007.
The long-run strategy was to achieve best-in-class performance on the trunk lines, successful commercial operations on the Rwanda-Burundi and other medium-term lines, and further extend the network.

So how does the standard gauge railway or SGR come into the picture? 
In wanting to migrate to the SGR, East African countries have made clear an attempt to dispense with their century-old metre gauge railway (MGR). The rail network in East Africa spans 7,363 route kilometres (km). But by 2009 only 6,334km was active. 

The systems are metre gauge for Kenya Railways Corporation (KRC), Uganda Railways Corporation (URC), and Tanzania Railways Corporation (TZU ), and cape gauge for the Tanzania Zambia Railway Authority (TAZARA) railway. The East African Railway (EAR) network was built between the 1890s and 1950s, whereas the TAZARA network was built in the 1970s.

What draws the SGR apart from the MGR?
Metre-gauge railways are narrow-gauge railways with a track gauge of 1,000mm or one metre. The SGR is a rail line system whose distance between rails ranges from 1,420mm to 1,460mm. The SGR, according to experts, is faster, carries more cargo, and is more stable than the MGR. The SGR can shoot to speeds of 200km/h. The MGR with modifications can also run at 110km/h.

The SGR offers potential for better inter-connectivity to similar railways, better availability and lower acquisition costs of rolling stock as well as track maintenance equipment (typically this can reduce capital costs by up to 10 percent) among other cost-saving benefits.  

What does the SGR progress report across East Africa read like?
To get its SGR project rolling in 2020, Tanzania got a helping hand from Denmark and Sweden when it secured a $46 billion loan. It is envisaged that once the construction is complete the SGR line will stretch for a further 1,000km to the shores of Lake Victoria, linking the landlocked countries of Burundi, Rwanda, and the DRC to the port of Dar es Salaam. 
Save for a test on the 300km Dar-Morogoro line in the first phase of the SGR project, nothing much has been achieved. Regardless, Tanzania has grand plans of connecting the SGR to Rwanda, Burundi, and the DRC. Intentions were made clear last year when Tanzania requested bids for the construction of the 367km Uvinza-Gitega line that will extend the SGR to Burundi. 

The project will involve 282km of the main line and 85km of siding/passing loops. Lot One will cover 180km from Uvinza to Malagarasi within Tanzania, and Lot Two 187km across the border to Musongati and then Gitega.

Two Chinese companies—China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) and China Railway Construction Company (CRCC)—that are in charge of constructing will build the final 506km section to complete the railroad linking the Dar es Salaam port to a hinterland that includes Burundi and the DRC.

In a 2013 report, the World Bank questioned the value for money of an SGR. Renovation of the metre-gauge network, it added, is financially viable. 

Yet banking on the insurance broker Marsh providing a creative $95m surety structure as security to Yapi Merkezi’s contractual performance-related obligations and the repayment of advance payments, two local Tanzanian banks were able to issue large guarantees backed by the African Trade Insurance Agency (ATI). This allowed construction on the first phase of the project, from Dar es Salaam to Morogoro, to begin.

“Part of  Dar es Salaam to Makutopora should be usable. Around 98 percent of those first 300km are done. All I can say is that the hype around Tanzania’s SGR is baseless. SGR is hard to construct, let alone justify the cost,” Mr Daniel Bwambale, a construction expert, told this publication.

How about the other East African countries?
Well, Kenya completed the Madaraka Express in 2017. It moves people and goods from the port of Mombasa to the capital, Nairobi, and also to a small town in Naivasha. Madraka Express didn’t come cheap as Kenya borrowed more than $3 billion from China to build the 472km railway from Mombasa to Nairobi. Kenya borrowed another $1.5 billion for a second branch from Nairobi to Naivasha.  

Uganda’s attempt at constructing an SGR was dealt a blow when China refused to give Kenya a $3.68 billion loan. The loan was meant to take the SGR line from Naivasha through Kisumu and eventually to the Malaba border crossing. Uganda would then take over the line’s construction to Kampala and beyond.

Kampala had hoped to use a Shs2.2 billion loan from Exim Bank to finance construction of the 273km line. Beijing insisted that Kampala commit to repaying the loan with revenues from sales of its crude oil. When Kampala failed to offer assurances, China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), which was supposed to construct the first phase of the project, opted out.   
Kenya has since secured $400 million it says will be used to upgrade its 120-year-old MGR to Malaba.

Does MGR still have a vital role to play?
Absolutely. It is being rehabilitated both in Kenya and Uganda. Kampala has moved to burnish its Kampala-Malaba MGR after getting a Shs1.1 trillion loan from the African Development Bank. The renovation works will incorporate 265km of metre gauge tracks between Malaba and Mukono. Elsewhere, the Tororo-Gulu MGR is also getting a fresh coat of paint courtesy of China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRC).  
Kampala also reached an agreement with Yapi Merkezi to construct its SGR after securing funds from Standard Chartered Bank. The Ugandan government insists that the MGR and SGR can co-exist.

“When fully rehabilitated, the MGR can only move about four million tonnes of cargo,” Mr Bwambale revealed, adding that Uganda has about 20 million tonnes between Malaba and Kampala. “We need both … MGR to transport heavy mineral cargo to places where it’s needed; SGR for faster passenger and cargo movement at a far greater capacity.”