Kenya is planning to import 11 used diesel trains from Spain — some as old as 25 years — in a Sh10 billion plan for a commuter train service and high capacity buses in Nairobi, the Sunday Nation can reveal.
The reconditioned Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs) are expected to arrive in the country any time from June this year in a rushed plan that raises suspicions on just how they are going to operate given findings of a report that questions their low capacity, weaker engines and in Nairobi’s single-track railway system.
Details of the purchase plan contained in a report released last month by two global consultants commissioned by Kenya Railways Corporation have remained a carefully covered secret with only superficial references made to the public.
The Sunday Nation has since learnt that the deal is now at an advanced stage, pushed by influential Transport ministry officials despite operational challenges being pointed out.
The team handling the matter first convinced the Cabinet to approve a government-to-government deal with Spain, effectively insulating the plan from procurement scrutiny.
Senior government officials including Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia and principal secretaries Charles Hinga and Esther Koimett have kept off commenting on the procurement of the units as old as 25 years, amid concerns that taxpayers may get a raw deal.
In the deal, a single train is priced at between Sh71 million and Sh137 million (without spares or any upgrade).
A benchmarking tour to Spain by a team of 11 officials drawn from KRC, the World Bank and the ministry, led by Ms Koimett and Mr Hinga in September 2018, is said to have marked a major turning point in what is increasingly appearing to be a bad deal.
Kenya had just completed a year-long study funded by the World Bank on how to decongest its capital city through mass movement of people in and out of Nairobi.
The report, which had detailed vital prerequisites for a long-term plan to make commuter trains and high capacity buses attractive to private car owners, specified the types of trains, capacity, routes and the frequency that would be able to handle the city’s bulging population. There was even a “quick win” component of the report with a specific work plan.
“All that was no longer relevant after the trip to Spain. Some ministry officials even separated themselves from the rest of the delegation and began making calls back in Kenya, just two days after we had a presentation from the Spanish train operator in Barcelona,” a source who was in the September 6 to 15 trip confided to the Sunday Nation.
Two weeks after the trip to Barcelona, which was not meant to shop for trains in the first place — according to the programme seen by the Sunday Nation — the Cabinet approved the decision to purchase the trains.
This was hinged on a government-to-government procurement arrangement with Spain, bypassing rigorous procurement requirements as happened in the multi-billion-shilling Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) project.
A ministry official, who is said to have blamed the team for “planning too much”, reportedly teamed up with a KRC technical consultant to come up with a sweet-coated proposal on the trains whose technical assessment had not been done and operational plan in Nairobi had not been ascertained.
A seemingly clueless Cabinet even went ahead in a memo dated December 5 instructing Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich to allocate Sh10 billion to upgrade the commuter rail infrastructure, buy the DMUs and the high capacity buses.
The greenlight was also given for the acquisition of the 11 DMUs from Serveis Ferroviaries de Mallorca (SFM) of Spain at a negotiated price capped at $15 million, raising more questions on whether it was still a government-to-government deal.
The team which was meant to conduct a study tour in Spain was reportedly impressed by a presentation by the Spanish train operator (SFM) which was concluding the process of retiring its diesel trains after completing a transition to electric ones.
There was a follow-up trip to Barcelona from December 21 to 27 — whose programme included visits to various tourist sites.
“The 61 series of SFM (or series 6100) is a series of diesel automotive units (DMU) manufactured by Construcciones and Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles (CAF) between 1994 and 2003 for Serveis Ferroviaris de Mallorca SFM and currently has 11 units for sale, 10 of them in service and one withdrawn from service. Kenya Railways is interested in acquiring this material,” Global consultants DAR and GPO Group wrote in a report after the December trip to Spain.
SFM had 12 DMUs but only offered 11 for sale to the Kenyan officials, leaving out the newest one, with one of the units said to be completely dilapidated, according to an insider with knowledge of the deal.
The Spanish railway operator had not honoured its pledge to respond to questions by the Sunday Nation sent two weeks ago despite committing to do so via e-mail.
“Unit no. 3 (61.19-62.04-61.20) is in quite bad condition and it would require a deep refurbishment process. Unit no. 12 (61.45-62.06-61.46) is the newest one and it is not confirmed that it is included in the package,” the consultants wrote.
A KRC expert familiar with the deal and who did not want to be quoted for fear of victimisation from his employer said a third visit showed that only four of the units were in proper condition.
He was also concerned that there may be insufficient supply of spare parts given that the operator usually has contracts with the manufacturer and whose interest diminishes with the ageing of the machines which were being retired anyway.
Spain had spent 4.5 million Euros (about Sh508 million) to carry out a minor maintenance of just nine units according to their service history whose exact timelines were not given, an amount that suggests Kenya’s need for a significant cash on standby to secure the smooth running of the trains.
The used units will also require substantial provision of spares, according to the consultant’s report which also recommended changes to the KRC workshops to meet the wheel profile of the trains.
The operation instructions as well as signs will have to be translated to English, suggesting the need for a Spanish workforce.
Of even greater concern is how the DMUs are far from what the World Bank-sponsored study had recommended — essentially making the units a challenge to operate in Nairobi.
The team had recommended an upgrade of existing railway infrastructure first, construction of new stations and higher capacity trains than what is being procured.
There was also a requirement that a Commuter Rail Unit with marketing, project management and functional communication departments be set up first.
First, the Spanish DMUs can only comprise a maximum of three coaches with each carrying 128 seated and 130 standing passengers at full capacity. That at maximum coupling of coaches, the trains can only carry 774 passengers.
A study concluded in December 2018 had estimated the number of passengers to be ferried per day at 132,000, assuming 60 per cent vehicle occupancy. At full occupancy the number would hit 220,000 passengers per day.
After a thorough demand analysis of the five commuter train corridors in Nairobi, the team recommended eight trains with eight-car set DMUs to make round trips to and from town to meet the demand. Each car was envisioned to carry at least 200 passengers.
Syokimau, Thika and Kikuyu would each require two trains while the currently dormant Kitengela and Embakasi Village line would require one train each. The trains would make 81 round trips to effectively pull the peak passenger demands to and from the city centre.
The eight-car set coach formation was based on the single-track nature of the commuter rail line which cannot allow for various exchanges along the route as it is in Spain where several tracks allow the small capacity trains to shuttle several trips and exchange with one another along the way.
In fact, in the Nairobi rail set up, all the lines except for the Kikuyu one pass through Makadara, making a bottleneck that experts say should allow a maximised use through a high capacity commuter train.
“The DMUs we are buying have an engine horsepower of 310Kv which is way lower than the current engines.
“You need about 1450Kv to pull 1,300 people at once as we had envisioned in the master plan. Nobody is looking into this. The rush is to have them here as soon as possible while clearly it will not work,” the railway engineer told the Sunday Nation.
Mr Hinga told the Sunday Nation details on how the plan will work can only be revealed after its completion.
“We are in the process of procurement and contracting so a whole lot of the details you are asking for will be provided once these processes are complete,” he said.
KRC had not responded to our queries on the operational practicality of the commuter trains being bought from Spain — more than two weeks after promising to give answers.
Last month, CS Macharia wrote to all ministry departments calling for a coordinated approach to provide an “orderly and structured development of the mass transit system within Nairobi.”
In the memo, the Nairobi Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (Namata), an overseer unit that falls under PS Hinga’s docket, was curiously given procurement powers in what is said to have caused jitters within the Ministry’s ranks.
“All activities relating to mass rapid transport system infrastructure development, operations/enforcement (rolling stock, safety, station management, financing, procurement, communication service, planning, ticketing business plan) licensing, traffic management and compliance to any law be under coordination by Namata,” CS Macharia wrote in the later dated January 15.
Insiders with knowledge of the procurement intrigues intimated at a possible fall out with the World Bank who may not fully support the single sourcing and the rushed procurement with ministry officials said to have hatched an alternative funding plan should the global lender fail to play ball.