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Two ribbons of rust: The railway lines scandals from days of yore

Sunday March 17 2019

Nairobi Railway Station

President Uhuru Kenyatta takes French President Emmanuel Macron on a tour of Nairobi Railway Station, on March 13, 2019. PHOTO | SAMWEL MIRING'U | PSCU 

JOHN KAMAU
By JOHN KAMAU
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This week, President Uhuru Kenyatta took French President Emmanuel Macron on a tour of the 119-year-old Nairobi Railway Station — and with a mission: to show him from where the French consortium will build a commuter rail between the city and Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

If it becomes a scandal, we shall revisit. Railways are supposed to be the routes to riches, but in Kenya, they have historically been the routes of the rich.

That after all these years we have not had a working rail system in our city is the scandal of our times.

But again, railway building — and sustention — by the British, and lately by the Chinese in Kenya — has become the longest running scandal. And rather than having a corporate colossus, we have a double-mouthed ogre stationed in Nairobi and Beijing.

RVR SCAM

From the British “Lunatic Express” to the Chinese built “Madaraka Express”; the story has been the same: lack of foresight, politics and mismanagement.

Because they were initially not well-thought-out. One of the colonial loudmouths, Col Ewart Grogan, had dismissed the Uganda Railway, as it was known then, as “two ribbons of rust”.

Then-Railway engineer George Whitehouse must be turning in his grave. Today, the Nairobi Railway Station — and its many stopovers — is dotted with rusting wagons, rusty roofs, and unkempt yards that have lived to the colonial critic’s description.

Some 13 years ago, this decrepit eyesore had been handed over to a South African company, Sheltam Trade Close Corp, to make some economic sense.

They didn’t. Instead, the scandal of Rift Valley Railways emerged since the South African, who was its face, Mr Roy Puffet, was just a briefcase carrier.

SGR

How Mr Puffet managed to convince the Kenya and Uganda governments to hand him the running of the Kenya-Uganda railway for 25 years has always intrigued observers.

As it later turned out, he had no capital and only had briefcase companies that he had registered in Mauritius and South Africa.

In between, he had sold his shell to TransCentury, the miracle blue-chip company of the Kibaki era — and to an Egyptian equity fund, Citadel Capital, which desired to have a controlling stake in RVR.

TransCentury had invested $11 million — and the Egyptians had promised to turn around the railway by investing $150 million.

Before the standard gauge railway madness — and desire for kickbacks — overtook the national reasoning, we had been told that to turn around Kenya Railways, RVR would have required Sh15 billion.

But by then, power brokers and project barons had entered the fray and sold the SGR idea to the coalition government of Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga.

The rest is history. That is how we ended up in the pernicious dragon pit of Chinese debts.

CORRUPTION

Perhaps, because we have never had our own Cornelius Vanderbilt — and because we never took the time to understand what kind of railway systems we need.

What shocks observers is how we have retrogressed, given that the Mombasa-Nairobi railway was built just about the time when Tsar Alexander III and his son Tsar Nicholas II were building the Trans-Siberian railway — now regarded as the longest railway line in the world.

It is even older than most of the Chinese system built by the French, British and German consortia, which were extorting contracts from a weakened China after it lost the First Sino-Japanese war of 1895.

That is how China got its 10,300km of new railway systems within a few years as it mortgaged its national sovereignty at a time when it was almost bankrupted by the 450 million silver taels ($330 million) fine to Japan.

Kenya Railways was, in its dying days, badly run. It was a den of pilfers who sold railway houses, railway yards and millions of tonnes of steel as scrap metal.

What was once a giant company was reduced to a citadel of mounting debts, lethargy, and corruption.

POWER PLAY

That was what Mwai Kibaki and Yoweri Museveni handed over to Mr Pufett in July 2003. By then, the railway had many branches which were not making any business sense.

It is only when you look at the history of the branches that you realise how power play, than reason, affects future generations the moment you build an infrastructure in the wrong place.

The Kenya-Uganda railway had by the time it snaked from Mombasa on August 5, 1896, to reach Kisumu on December 10, 1901, consumed £5.5 million, 2,493 Asian and five European lives — and an unaccounted number of indigenous Kenyans.

While the main idea was to open the interior of Kenya and Uganda to colonial exploitation, Lord Delamere had on his part influenced the building of the railway through his Nakuru concessions to increase the value of land between Njoro and Rongai.

For his part, Col Ewart Grogan wanted the railway to pass via his forest concessions at Maji Mazuri on the Nakuru route — and the scandal of those days was that he wined and dined the railway engineers to have his way.

TRIBUTE

Even Kisumu was not on the original map, but chief plate layer Engineer Ronald Preston wanted to reach Winam Gulf to finish the project before Christmas.

And when he reached the shores of the lake, he named it Port Florence — in honour of his wife. Some say it was in honour of Florence Whitehouse, the wife of the railway engineer.

This is the place Preston triumphantly invited his wife to hammer down the last rail of his five-and-a-half-year engineering odyssey to the great lake. After a few years, it was renamed Kisumu.

The reason why the line was taken to Kisumu was because of pressure from London, which called for a new route.

There is a 1921 report compiled by Railway Council’s Lieut Col F Hammond which argues that the choice of Kisumu was for purely personal and financial reasons.

“The depth of the gulf appears not to have carried much weight. The main object was to cut down expenditure, and future commercial requirements received less consideration than political objects for which the line had been primarily built.”

INQUIRY

And that is how the railway in Kisumu found itself at the wrong place. There was a warning too: “The bottom of the gulf is soft mud, nearly liquid, so that dredging would hardly be successful as the mud would fill again as soon as the dredger has passed.”

Another scandal — and this was raised in the House of Commons — was on the Uasin Gishu line. Hope Simpson raised the matter wondering why a new line was being built 10 miles from the Uganda Railway.

“That seems to me to be a scandal. It has never been inquired into. We have demanded an inquiry. The Europeans in Kenya have demanded an inquiry, but we have not got it.”

There is also a line from Voi to Kahe which is no longer used, but was built for military reasons during World War I. This line was supposed to be realigned from Taveta to Moshi.

It is now dead, just like the Nanyuki line which was built in 1928 to serve the settlers. After they left, the line lost its place.

LONGEVITY

The only line that seemed to make sense was the Magadi one run by the soda company.

That tells us that when railway systems are built to serve short-term interests — they hardly survive as commercial platforms.

As the French start surveying the route towards JKIA, my hope is that they will look at the long-term commercial interest of such a rail — and that we shall not have the problem of SGR with us, which drops passengers far from the city.

And as they do that, why can’t we rebuild the sidings in Nairobi’s Industrial Area?

[email protected] @johnkamau1