After decades of unabated downturn, rail transport is steadily bouncing back, thanks to technological innovation, a shift in management approaches and effects of climate change. This has seen increased sensitisation on environmental issues. But in Africa, this renaissance has encountered some bottlenecks, owing to inadequate government commitment in some countries.
The African Development Bank (AfDB), in its 2015 report titled Rail Infrastructure in Africa: Financing Policy Options, said Africa is experiencing an unprecedented economic recovery, with strong growth projections over the next three to four decades. According to the report, the growth was driven by a fast-growing demographic and large-scale urbanisation. The operation of new mines, gas and oil fields, as well as the increase in intra-regional and international trade, were additional growth factors.
Notably, the transport sector can accelerate and intensify trade in Africa. Rail transport, in particular, as a result of its energy efficiency, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and lower cost per tonen kilometre, is expected to play an increasingly important role in the conveyance of freight over long distances. In comparison to other means of transportation, railways are particularly useful in mass transit systems for both inter-city and urban settings.
But even as Africa becomes more and more attractive as a destination for infrastructure financing in many sectors such as energy, telecoms and transportation, investment in railways is still small compared with other sectors. This calls for more institutional reforms and more mature financial markets to up-scale the implementation of new approaches to infrastructure finance commonly found in developed countries such as project bonds.
In Kenya, the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), a flagship project of Vision 2030 financed by the China Exim Bank, has already transformed the transport sector by shortening the passenger travel time from Mombasa to Nairobi from more than ten hours to a little more than four hours, with freight trains completing the journey in less than eight hours.
It is noteworthy that the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), the operator of Madaraka Express train service, has embarked on a mission to revamp its image and position itself as the number one public transporter of choice in the country. Launched in June last year, Madaraka Express Service operates four daily shuttles, ferrying hundreds of passengers in the inter-county and express service trains between Nairobi and Mombasa.
As of September 30, 2018, Madaraka Express had ferried over 1.89 million passengers in 1638 trips. Freight transport numbers have also been impressive; Since July 14, SGR has been operating an average of 14 freight trains a day between Nairobi and Mombasa, with a maximum of 20. Each train carries up to 54 vehicles, transporting 108 Twenty-Foot Equivalent Unit (TEU) containers per train in a single direction from Mombasa to Nairobi.
This translates to a total of 756 TEU containers per day. The latest statistics indicate that 160,000 TEU and 1.86 million tonnes of cargo have been transported. There are five types of cargo transported via the Nairobi-Mombasa Railway, that is, containers, hazardous articles, coiled steel, bagged grain and wire rod.
There is no gainsaying that customer service skills are at the core of the success of any organisation. Significantly, train companies have a number of consumer facing obligations and it is imperative that passengers get the service to which they are entitled.
Taking cognisance of this, CRBC, in its quest to enhance service delivery and improve customer experience on the Madaraka Express, has been sending its passenger service crew for customer training in China.
Besides bolstering career progression of the beneficiaries and enhancing their professional knowledge and business capacity, the training aims at maximizing skills transfer in the organisation.
Above all, the introduction of booking tickets through mobile phones has gone a long way in enhancing customer convenience. Whereas certain concerns have been raised by members of the public regarding the lopsided composition of workers on the train as well as longer periods required to place advance bookings, these are teething problems likely to be experienced by any service operator venturing into new territory. With time, these problems are all surmountable.
– The writer is a communications advisor for the China Road and Bridge Corporation.