Transporters operating on the Mombasa–Nairobi–Busia highway are a worried lot.
They are bracing themselves for a bleak future following the launch of the Standard Gauge Railway and the subsequent flagging off of the Madaraka Express train service by President Uhuru Kenya.
Even though they welcome the project as timely, the transporters fear the railway line will render them jobless, owing to the increasing number of people opting to either travel or ferry their cargo using the train service.
“Already, our clients are opting to use the trains to either transport their goods or travel themselves because it is cheap,” Inter-freight company supervisor Jared Odulo told the Nation in Busia.
“This has only one implication to our businesses. We will definitely be forced to close shop. The cargo section will mostly be affected because the train’s capacity will render over 200 trucks jobless.”
His sentiments were shared by petroleum transporter Bakri International’s clearing manager, Mr Mohammed Suleiman, who said the effects of the new project are already being felt in the region.
While launching the commuter train, President Kenyatta announced that economy class fares should not exceed Sh700 between Nairobi and Mombasa.
Buses plying the Busia-Mombasa route normally charge between Sh2,000 and Sh2,500.
Now, many of these passengers could opt to travel by bus to Nairobi and connect with the train to the Coast.
FUTURE OF TRUCKS
The Madaraka Express train is also expected to ferry between 40 and 50 per cent of port-bound cargo, reducing road damage, pollution and accidents.
One train will pull 200 containers between the port and Nairobi while two passenger trains will move an estimated 1,000 people a trip each in less than six hours between the two points.
Currently, trucks charge between Sh85,000 and Sh90,000 to move a container from Mombasa to Nairobi and approximately Sh150,000 to Busia.
According to Mr Salim Matalanga, the Grandbus customer care manager, the firm will either close the passenger business or reduce fares to compete with the train. In his view, reducing fares is not a viable option.
“Competition has been stiff. We are mulling over reducing our fares to remain relevant. I am not sure whether we will be in business for long,” he said.
However, Tahmeed Coaches manager Jaffa Rabia put on a brave face, hoping that his company will still retain their customers even with the new train.
He however criticised the government for “deliberately” running them out of business.
“It’s unfortunate that the government decided to sideline us while coming up with the pricing model of ferrying passengers and goods.
"This is despite the fact that we are key stakeholders in the transport industry.
"Lowering prices without consulting us is just not right. The SGR will no doubt eat into our profit margins. It will really affect us, we will definitely run out of business,” he said.
More than six bus companies operate on the Busia-Mombasa route, including Modern Coast, Mash Poa and Buscar.
Mr Mohammed Jamal, a Busia resident, urged transporters not to despair but look for other innovative means to compete with the train service.
“Truckers and bus companies should bank on innovation because even in countries with modern railway systems, like the USA and UK, there are still trucks on the roads,” Jamal observed.
EMPLOYMENT AT STAKE
In Nairobi, both bus and logistics companies see no good in the SGR.
On Monday last week, just minutes past 9am, Francis Muema, a loader at the Modern Coast Bus terminus, was hurrying to load a late passenger’s luggage into one of the buses for the journey to Mombasa.
His seemingly composed and jovial mien was however betrayed by the anxiety and apprehension on his face.
Since the Madaraka Express train began its services, Muema has been a disturbed man.
“It is still quite hard to foretell and reconcile oneself with what might happen in the coming months as we are not sure what the directors will decide on the fate of hundreds of employees working here,” he said cheerlessly.
The new 1,200 seater train is a sensation and is proving to be popular on account of its low fares and high speed.
Most travellers see the train as a better bargain compared to buses, which charge Sh1,000 and above for the Nairobi-Mombasa journey that also takes about eight hours.
Owing to the irregular train services of the now defunct lunatic train, most cargo offloaded at the port of Mombasa is trucked to parts of the country and beyond, including neighbouring countries such as Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, South Sudan and Congo.
Once the cargo train starts services, charges for containerised cargo from the Mombasa to the Inland Container Depot in Nairobi will be pegged at $500 (Sh51,675).
Other freight will cost Sh32,800 to transport. This will result in a 40 per cent decline in the cost of cargo transportation considering that truckers charge between $800 and $900 to move the goods by road between the two cities.
The amount of time taken to transport the goods will also decline from 16-to-24 hours to a maximum of eight hours.
Not surprisingly, a section of bus owners have criticised the government for failing to consult stakeholders in the transport sector only to surprise them with a low fare that could kill their businesses.
They said the railway project was rushed without proper support structure, including a road connecting the Mombasa city centre to the Miritini railway station.
Hafidh Mahmood, an assistant manager at Mash East Africa, said the SGR does not affect the transport sector alone.
“The damage spills over to the hundreds of hotels in the numerous stop-over towns along the way from Mombasa to Nairobi,” he said.
PROFIT AND LOSS
According to him, since bus and truck/logistics companies provide the bulk of customers to the hotels, many of those located in the roadside towns from Mtito Andei to Mlolongo are likely to close down, sending their employees home.
Hundreds of those employed by the bus companies like Muema are also scared of losing their jobs should the buses fail to make profits.
“Many bus drivers, conductors, loaders, receipt clerks, office managers, cleaners, suppliers and many others, who have families depending on them, could soon find themselves without a source of livelihood, as both developments and reality of tough life dawn on us simultaneously,” Muema said.
Launched and named Madaraka Express on May 31 by President Kenyatta, the system was welcomed by many as an upgrade in the country’s transport system from the antiquated “Lunatic Express” train, which took over 12 hours between Nairobi to Mombasa.
While Muema agreed that it is a good upgrade, which could turn around the country’s transport woes, he was also sceptical.
“I cannot deny that it is a noble development, but to an extent, where the good ends and the negative begins. We might soon lose our jobs, and what happens to us after that?” he asked.
And Mahmood asked: “What happens when there are fewer or no customers? It means some offices will be closed and employees sent home to a life of uncertainty and no sure source of income.”
In his view, the government should have first looked at and addressed both short and long term implications of the SGR.
“For a person who now hardly affords basic food commodities such as maize flour, sugar and milk among others, what is his/her joy in travelling to Mombasa in record-time,” he asked.
P.N. Mashru, the subsidiary through which Mash East Africa conducts its cargo haulage business, also sees no good prospects from the SGR.
Mr Jacob Opiyo, the operations manager at Trans-east Ltd, another freight company, said that even though it seems cheaper to transport containers in train wagons, the owners of the containers will eventually incur more hidden charges.
According to him, transporting the cargo container from Syokimau or Naivasha to the specific point of delivery becomes more expensive in the end.
“Those trailers provide a source of income to many families and it is unfortunate that yet again, drivers, turnboys, mechanics, eatery and accommodation operators along the way and those employed in those eateries will be forced to seek employment elsewhere,” Mahmood lamented.
Clearly, one man’s meat is turning out to be another’s poison.