Revelations on Friday that the standard gauge railway (SGR) will stop in Naivasha for the foreseeable future and goods moved through the old line has created uncertainty about Kenya’s biggest infrastructure project.
After spending more than Sh500 billion to build a railway from Mombasa to a little know destination in Narok County bordering Naivasha, the Jubilee administration appears to have unwittingly adopted previous arguments by critics that it should have simply rehabilitated the metre gauge railway at a fraction of the cost.
This also raises questions about the original SGR plan even as State House Saturday denied extension of the loan from Naivasha to Kisumu was on the table. By July 13, 2015, Kenya Railways approved the feasibility study and the preliminary design based on the Southern route (Nairobi-Naivasha-Narok-Bomet-Kisumu-Malaba.
In fact, the Attorney-General, according to a brief to the National Assembly Transport Committee, had approved the commercial contracts for the Naivasha -Malaba SGR as early as March 2016 and the new shift will now among other things even disrupt the Kisumu port plan, which has been central to the SGR narrative.
How the new plan fits into the old one after immense effort to design its feasibility and business sense remains uncertain. It has lifted the pomp associated with the line that was set to be opened in July by President Uhuru Kenyatta, and thrown land dealers who had eyed billions in compensation along the line beyond Naivasha as well as put railway experts back to the drawing board.
The metre gauge railway route becomes Nairobi’s Plan C after previous statements by Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia on at least reaching Kisumu with an eye on extending it to Uganda and Rwanda.
Mr Macharia’s revelations during the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing will also present a huge planning nightmare as the SGR ends in Duka Moja, more than 43km to the old railway line in Naivasha.
It also a belated admission that indeed Kenya could have saved billions by upgrading the metre gauge railway line instead of going for the expensive SGR whose land acquisition and construction costs will be a pain on Kenya’s finances for years to come.
Kenya may also have erred in the rush to start the railway line alone even as much as the SGR protocol remained a Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan affair. The various implementation rushes, and disregard to vital economic elements may now turn to haunt the country.
As early as 2011, documents show former Kenya Railways Managing Director Nduva Muli had questioned why the country was getting into a project it had no feasibility study to lay its justification on.
Mr Muli, who after receiving a budgetary allocation to conduct a feasibility study on the railway line in 2011, got a shocking letter from the then Transport PS Cyrus Njiru applying brakes on the process.
“I have, therefore, been directed to advise you not to go ahead with the study as this is not consistent with the consensus within government,” Mr Njiru wrote in the ‘order from above’ letter.
In a memo No 3073 to the board of directors, the MD insisted Kenya was getting a bad deal and the project was a blind walk into darkness. He reminded the board that Kenya and Uganda had agreed to build a railway between Mombasa and Kampala and the two presidents made declaration to that effect in October 2008 at State House, Nairobi. He could not understand how the deal had shifted to just between Mombasa and Nairobi.
Mr Muli was adamant that without the study, the Government of Kenya lacked an independent view of the best way to implement the project and especially on the cost implications. But, it later emerged, the Chinese were all along secretly carrying out a feasibility study.
The board was told an independent survey would tell the most suitable route, cost and financing modalities, in line with ‘normal practice in infrastructure projects.’ The study would also identify any adverse environmental impacts and how to address them as well as traffic data to support the design of the railway operations.
In fact, technical teams for Kenya and Uganda government had worked together to harmonise terms of reference for studies in the two countries in line with the requirements of the bilateral agreement. Both were also engaged in procuring consultants and Kenya had completed its end.
“The government does not have information to safeguard its interest during negotiation of the proposed G-to-G arrangement and also during construction to ensure the envisaged specifications and benefits of the new railway line are achieved,” a letter from the MD to the Kenya Railways board said.
Kenya Railways had been sidelined and it could hardly provide any insight into the study. A badly hollow assessment of the project that had very high cost proposals had been crafted by the Chinese who were overly optimistic (by design or negligence). There was neither a market study report nor a financial modelling report to tell the profitability of the railway business.