For many years, the railway line from Nairobi to Nanyuki was a forlorn and dilapidated metal track overgrown with bushes in many places, a pitiable but poignant reminder of the gradual decay of what had been once a vibrant transport corridor.
On the busy Nairobi-Nyeri highway at Karatina Town, one hardly noticed the decrepit track disappear into the makeshift stalls in the busy market. Itinerant vendors spread out clothes, shoes and other merchandise on the rail. Young men sat on the rail, smoking and idling. Even the railway crossing sign to warn motorists of an impending train was vandalized long ago.
Except for a brief resuscitation during President Mwai Kibaki’s regime, the Nairobi-Nanyuki railway had been as a dead as a dodo for close to thirty years, epitomizing the tragic fate of the country’s railway infrastructure since independence. A brief history suffices.
Built by the colonial government in the 1920s, the Nanyuki line was not in the initial design of the Kenya-Uganda railway line, constructed in 1896-1901. This was not by accident.
As Remi Jedwab and others write in an article titled How colonial railroads defined Africa’s economic geography, the railway engineers were preoccupied with following the least costly route and as such “none of the localities in-between may have been considered worthwhile to connect.”
In fact, the primary objective of the colonialists was to connect the “landlocked and relatively prosperous Uganda to the coast…Kenya was merely transit territory.” Still, the ‘Lunatic Express’ as it was derisively called, reached Port Florence (now Kisumu) in 1901.
With time, a number of branches sprouted along the main route, beginning in 1912 with the Voi-Taveta line to tap into the expanding sisal plantations. Next was the Magadi line built-in 1915, a link to the rich soda ash deposits on Lake Magadi.
In 1913, a line opened from Nairobi to Thika which was then extended over the next seventeen years to Murang’a, Nyeri and ultimately arrived in Nanyuki in 1930. Other lines were built to Solai (1926), Kitale (1926), Eldoret-Uganda (1928), Nyahururu (1929) and Kisumu-Butere (1932).
Like the others, the Nanyuki extension was built for strategic reasons, namely, exploitation of the rich agricultural and natural resources in the hinterland, more precisely the White Highlands occupied by colonial settlers.
However, railway historians reckon that while the colonial regime was able to sustain traffic on the various routes, the railway network was generally unprofitable and unable to stave off competition from road transport. The original idea had been to create an agricultural export economy that would pay for the railway. For this reason, the colonial regime even avoided building roads that were parallel to the railway.
Successive post-independence governments also pursued policies geared to sustaining passenger and freight volumes on the railway. Most of the tea, coffee and other commodities were transported using rail. But by the 1980s, the country’s railway system was crumbling as mismanagement, ineptitude and corruption became entrenched.
In the 1990s, things only got worse. Records show that out of a fleet of 198 locomotives only 53 were in service. Only 3,700 out of the 6,400 freight wagons were in use. Train derailments became a frequent occurrence with the ageing track mainly to blame.
That is how the Nairobi-Nanyuki railway line gradually fell into desuetude. Moreover, its decline coincided with the progressive collapse of the central Kenya regional economy in the 1980s to 2001.
As mentioned, the Kibaki administration attempted to revive the fortunes of the Nanyuki railway but this was short-lived. Focus turned to rehabilitation and expansion of the country’s road network.
The recent rehabilitation of the 240-kilometre Nairobi-Nanyuki Meter-Gauge-Railway (MGR) line, therefore, marks a watershed moment in the chequered history of Kenya’s railway system.
Its significance further lies in the fact that this particular line serves one of the most economically productive regions in the country comprising the 10 counties that form the Central Regional Economic Bloc (CEREB). These are Kiambu, Murang’a, Kirinyaga, Nyeri, Laikipia, Nyandarua, Meru, Tharaka Nithi, Embu and Nakuru.
In 2015, the World Bank published an economic analysis of all the 47 counties based on GDP value. Going by these figures, the combined GDP value of the ten CEREB counties amounted to US $ 9.5 billion which was then roughly Ksh 1 trillion. At that time, Kenya’s GDP was valued at US $ 64.2 billion or about Ksh 6 trillion meaning the CEREB counties accounted for about 16 per cent of the country’s total wealth.
The revamped Nairobi-Nanyuki railway is positioned to serve this large and growing market comprising agriculture, trade, manufacturing, mining, trade and tourism. It will also open up the region for further industrial investment and economic diversification.
Indeed, one of the stated objectives of CEREB is to promote diversification of the region’s economy outside agriculture and avoiding duplication of activities. Movement of more people and goods through passenger and freight services will be key to the growth of trade.
To fully grasp the significance of this railway transport corridor, one has to look at the bigger picture. First, the re-introduction of rail services coincides with the ongoing revival of local industries galvanized by reforms in the tea and coffee sector. This is expected to not only rejuvenate and increase the production of the valuable agricultural commodities but also create opportunities for value addition through agro-processing and manufacture of food and beverage products.
Rail freight transportation is cheaper over long distances compared to road thus reducing the cost of production. The ability to move bulk cargo in the form of inputs and finished products at a lower cost will make the CEREB region more competitive from an agricultural and manufacturing perspective.
Also, due to its ability to convey large volumes of cargo over long distances, rail transport is instrumental in trade-driven economic development.
For instance, by mid-August, the newly revamped line had moved over 300,000 litres of petroleum from Mombasa to the Nanyuki fuel depot operated by Vivo Energy. The depot has a capacity of 11.5 million litres with an LPG facility that can fill 800 cylinders of gas daily. Nanyuki is now poised to become a major transport and logistics hub serving adjacent counties and those in the northern frontier like Isiolo and Marsabit.
Also, moving this bulky volume of fuel off the roads increases their lifespan, reduces deadly road accidents while cutting maintenance costs and saving taxpayers money that could be used in funding essential services like health and education.
Second, the rail will play a role in CEREB economic diversification. Recent surveys show that Laikipia County has high mineral potential in iron ore, marble, kaolin, bauxite among others. Railways the world over are key in mining development as they provide a competitive mode of transportation.
Besides coffee, tea and wheat, other products from the region like beef, potatoes and horticulture can be ferried on the line to key markets like Nairobi and other major cities and towns.
Third, devolution and rapid urbanization will create increased demand for transportation. With over half of Kenya’s population expected to be living in cities and towns by 2050, it is important for counties in the CEREB region to focus on expanding infrastructure in response to rapid urbanization.
Fourth, the Nairobi-Nanyuki railway is a vital link to the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor. The planned extension of the railway line from Nanyuki to Isiolo to link with LAPSSET will further open up CEREB to trade opportunities with northern Kenya and beyond our borders. A shoe vendor in Nyeri will be able to travel by train to Ethiopia to buy stock and return by train to sell the shoes in Karatina.
Fifth, tourism will benefit once the passenger service is fully operational and hopefully offer local and foreign tourists an opportunity of enjoying the scenic country landscape travelling on a train.
Beyond doubt, the rehabilitation of the Nairobi-Nanyuki Railway line is a boon for the region and the country as a whole. Although it may not offer the kind of passenger and freight capacity that the high-speed Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) boasts, the MGR line to Nanyuki will certainly benefit the counties it traverses and the economy.
Something else worth mentioning about the Nairobi-Nanyuki project is that it is perhaps one of the most cost-effective public infrastructure projects undertaken in Kenya in recent times.
Notably, it was seamlessly executed at a fraction of the initial projected cost through the innovative use of local engineering capability and labour.
The total cost was initially given was Ksh. 25 billion. However, it cost only Ksh 3 billion to refurbish the line and put the wagons back on track. In the process, the country saved 22 billion shillings, just slightly above the Ksh19.2 billion allocated in this year’s national Budget to combat malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/Aids.
Out of the Ksh 3 billion spent, Kenya Pipeline Company (KPC) contributed Ksh 1.8 billion. Don’t forget that only a few months ago, KPC was in the news over a shocking Ksh 74 billion corruption scandal involving illegal siphoning of fuel.
What does this tell us? That when public resources are properly utilized for the intended purpose, the country and its people stand to gain a lot.
In short, apart from reversing decades of infrastructure decay, and restoring this vital transport corridor, the revamped Nairobi-Nanyuki railway is a shining example of how much Kenya can achieve by defeating corruption.