Secrecy and suspicion have characterised the operations of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) two years since the first train made its maiden trip to Nairobi.
Exactly how much revenue the trains make and what taxpayers are forking to support the operations of the SGR up to how many trains are operated in a day remains anyone’s guess since the project rolled on.
It depends on who you ask or what data you are reading when it comes to the volume of passengers or cargo ferried on the line, or even the amount earned from the service in which Kenya has sank billions of taxpayers’ money borrowed from China.
Data like safety records are only shared among top management of selected government agencies. The Sunday Nation has since seen one such data released in April 2019 on cargo freight services which show that there has been at least one accident in every three days since the cargo services were launched in January 2018.
“There has been a total of 187 accidents reported at Mombasa and Nairobi since the commencement of the freight operations in July 2017. Most of these accidents are related to loading and offloading activities whereby a crane operator lifts off a container from the wagon before the container is fully detached from the twist lock. Thus, lifting both the wagon and the container resulting to damaging the wagons’ air valves,” says the report.
The most tightly guarded secret, however, remains the revenues with even the country’s official data source, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) contradicting itself on just how much the SGR made in its first year of operation.
In March 2019, the agency put the figure at Sh10.3 billion, a figure that even the Chinese Ambassador to Kenya Wu Peng last month lauded as “near break-even in just one year.”
The ambassador went further to laud the huge economic benefits the SGR was giving Kenya with the trip between Mombasa and Nairobi now reduced from “over 10 hours to five hours and over 2.77 million passengers having been carried on the line.
KNBS in its latest Leading Economic Indicators however revised the first-year revenue of the SGR to Sh5.7 billion, casting doubt on the brilliant numbers that have been used to justify false hope for the line’s ability to even pay for its operations.
KNBS Director-General Zachary Mwangi told Sunday Nation that the agency was engaging Kenya Railways to find out where the conflicting data came from.
“We got the numbers from Kenya Railways and we have begun engaging them to know why the numbers changed. We need to find the story behind the changing numbers and in our net release before the end of this month, we should be able to reveal what happened,” Mr Mwangi said adding doubt to the agency’s data which recently painted a picture of booming economic growth rate of 6.3 per cent.
The changing numbers is only the surface of a struggling railway line whose existence has raised controversy. The cargo business, which was the main hope of revenue, has failed to yield after it turned out to be more expensive than the roads option.
Last month, a memorandum sent before Cabinet detailed how various layers of inefficiencies made the use of SGR to transport cargo from Mombasa to Nairobi more than twice expensive.
According to the traders, while the average transport cost for 20ft and 40ft container from Mombasa to Nairobi by road is Sh65,000 and Sh85,000 respectively, the cost for ferrying the same cargo on SGR averages at Sh142,000 and Sh212,000 respectively.
“The difference between road and rail for 20ft and 40ft amount to $770 (118 per cent increase) and $1,270 (149 per cent increase) respectively,” the traders through a technical committee wrote to Cabinet.
The report says movement of containers from vessel to loading at the rail side which should ordinarily take 42 hours now take up to 288 hours, causing delays that translate to demurrage charges. The insider records from Kenya Railways also show a badly skewed function of the SGR as merely an import tool.
In April 2018, Transport Cabinet Secretary (CS) James Macharia said there would be 12 cargo trains operating by December of the same year
The CS would later tell a parliamentary joint committee that the SGR was running eight trains per day which was making Sh2.12 billion in monthly revenue compared to its Sh1.7 billion operating cost, basically making Sh424 million profit.
On Sunday, CS Macharia declined to be drawn into any discussion over the SGR operations deflecting the questions to Kenya Railways instead.
“You need to direct these questions to the procuring entity (Kenya Railways),” the CS replied to a text message asking him which numbers he would stand with regarding the SGR revenues and his projection on when the project would break even.
Kenya Railways had not responded by the time of going to press.
Any criticism of the SGR operations are, however, met with vicious reaction from government officials, with bloggers and online hirelings always at hand to raid the media whenever such stories are written.