Railroad History: Why East Africa’s SGR Dream is Faltering

Tanzania has deviced an homegrown SGR agenda with diluted financing and new standard reputed to be superior to even the Kenyan SGR.Tanzania and Rwanda are also constructing an SGR ,all in different tones and dimensions from the original regional plan.The three black spots now are Uganda,South Sudan and Burundi.

The dream of an integrated East African Rail project is under threat due to infighting among regional leaders and question of high cost.Even when the concept is not dead,partner countries appear to have designed a national plan of action to control cost and meet national requirements.A flashback to how it all started is good for African railroad history.

The Standard Gauge Railway project is being constructed in line with a regional SGR Protocal, signed by the four Northern Corridor Partner States of Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan and Rwanda.The multi-billion Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) project was launched at the Northern Corridor Integration Projects (NCIP) summit at Munyonyo in Kampala in 2014.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni was joined by his regional counterparts Paul Kagame of Rwanda and South Sudan President Salva Kiir to launch the project that they said was intended to reduce the cost of transport in the region and spur economic development.The summit agreed to construct at China Class 1 railway and signed a protocal to this effect. The entire SGR project, the summit agreed, was to be developed and operated as a seamless transport system especially in terms of connectivity. China class 1 and 2 are differentiated by the role of the network, if the main focus is on passengers or cargo, annual freight volumes, speed and curvatures, nature of trains, and if it is fully automatic.

The summit’s also agreed, because of the need to secure financing, that the project would start in Kenya –  Mombasa to Nairobi. Feasibility studies and technical documents for the rest of the railway project in western Kenya, Uganda followed by Rwanda and South Sudan, would meanwhile be finished as full financing is secured.

The Regional Governments of Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and South Sudan have jointly approached the Republic of China for Funding the development of the SGR project.Already,the loan process is truncated as Tanzania has deviced another channel while Uganda is dead scared of likely debt over hang.

It was agreed that Naivasha to Malaba and Malaba to Kampala legs would start as soon as financing was guaranteed, which was expected ahead of the June 2017 launch of the Mombasa-Nairobi line. The just completed Mombasa-Nairobi SGR is a China Class 1.This will be followed by connections from Kampala to Rwanda, and then from Tororo to South Sudan.

At each summit, progress is given to the heads of state on progress of the SGR. At the last meeting, the leaders hailed the progress. Kenya president Kenyatta is shown the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) progress near Nairobi recently. Kenya and Uganda are in final dicussions to secure funding from China for the Naivasha-Malaba, and Malaba-Kampala legs that are set to take off simultaneously.

Uganda’s SGR project will comprise of the Eastern, Northern and Western routes. The Government of Uganda signed an EPC contract with China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd (CHEC) to construct the Eastern and Northern route SGR.Uganda has however developed cold feet.

The Eastern route starts from Malaba and end in Kampala. It traverses through the districts of Tororo, Butaleja, Namutumba, Iganga, Luuka, Mayuge, Jinja, Buikwe, Mukono, Wakiso and Kampala. The

Northern Route comprises of the Tororo – Gulu – Packwach alignment, which traverses through Tororo, Butaleja, Mbale, Bukedea, Pallisa, Kumi, Ngora, Soroti, Amuria, Alebtong, Lira, Kole, Oyam, Gulu and Nebbi. The Gulu –Nimule alignment start from Gulu, through Nwoya and Amuru districts.

Officials of Uganda’s SGR project have previously explained the varying costs of railway construction in the region, dismissing the MPs comparisons between costs in Ethiopia, Kenya and those in Uganda.They argued that Ethiopia’s SGR is a class lower than what Uganda is building, is not fully automatic and designed mainly for passengers. Uganda’s SGR will be designed to cater for both, and extra costs come out of the fact that, because of distance from the sea, most materials cost more. (Click to read SGR costs explained in detail)

In addition, the terrain in the countries are different with Uganda’s line affected by huge costs of building bridges on long stretched over the many swamps and rivers the line has to cross. This will include a close to 1km heavy duty bridge over the river Nile in Jinja, a 2.6km bridge over River Mpologoma and a1.5km bridge over Naigombwa.

“Ethiopia’s route is along the semi-dessert while Uganda’s route is along the Lake Victoria basin,” SGR said.

Of the 276km of the eastern route railway line, 53km is in wetlands. This, according to SGR officials, means a lot of money has to be used to ensure that the railway safely passes over the wetlands without destroying it.

To change from class 1 to class 2, SGR said, would delay the project another 4 or 5 years, and  “would warrant Uganda to opt out of the SGR regional protocal with Kenya, Rwanda and South Sudan, and not have a seamless connectivity with Kenya since it is already constructing a class 1 railway.”

Meanwhile,Tanzania has deviced an homegrown SGR agenda with diluted financing and new standard reputed to be superior to even the Kenyan SGR.Tanzania and Rwanda are also constructing an SGR ,all in different tones and dimensions from the original regional dimension.The three black spots now are Uganda,South Sudan and Burundi.

*Note-Substantial part of this article was originally published in early 2017 by Independent newspapers of Uganda. 

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