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OPINION: Mark my word, SGR is a game changer

On June 1 next year, over 1000 people will ride on the first passenger train on the magnificent Standard Gauge Railway.

I do not know about you, but I would like to be in that train. Having travelled on the old line overnight and observed the sun set and then rise 12 hours later, all from a rather cold worn-out seat, I just can’t wait to travel from Nairobi to Mombasa in four and a half hours in a state-of-the-art double-decker coach.

Kenya Railways Corporation records bear witness that I was one day a passenger on the old albeit famous line when it took a frustrating 15 hours to cover the 472km journey. To get a feel, travel back with me in that journey many moons ago. It was the mid-1990s while in high school and the youth wing of my church organized a trip to Mombasa.

As a gang-ho, skinny teenager, this first trip to the famed coastal city was always going to be a thrill full of historical lessons. I couldn’t wait to get there through one of the most epic train journeys in Africa, in not the world.

From Railway Station in Nairobi, the locomotive snaked along, almost in a crawl, as we struggled for the vantage window seat to absorb the captivating scenery. The adventure was well worth it; the landscape through the Ukambani plains was simply breathtaking.

But there was a downside. The train was old and rickety, seemingly not renovated since it was put into service decades ago. Young and of small means, the third class was our only option; devoid of any comforts. Here, the lights and fans were dysfunctional, the toilets and the insects therein, were nauseating.

TRAIN JOURNEY

Halfway through the journey, devastating fatigue set in and there was nothing more to enjoy. Having departed Nairobi at around 5pm, we arrived in Mombasa at 10am the following day, tired, dirty, and hungry.

By this time, Nairobians had endured the evening traffic, arrived home, had dinner, watched the news, slept and woken up to a new day. School children were by now actually enjoying the mid-morning break.

After a fun-filled stay at the coast, we had no option but to endure the wearisome ride back. I swore to never again take the train to the coast. It is no surprise that rail transport market share today stands at a measly one percent. The train is now a preserve of those seeking adventure on a ‘sleeper train’, complete with bed and breakfast.

But from next year, Kenya will herald a new dawn when the journey time to Mombasa, roughly eight hours by bus, will be cut by half.

This means that, if the train will have a provision to leave Nairobi at, say 5am, you can easily schedule an 11am meeting in Mombasa and take a leisurely lunch before catching the train back home. If lucky not to be held up in the Nairobi traffic, you will get home in time to take your children through homework.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

And yes, for the price of fare, you will be treated to a 130 km ‘game drive’, from an elevated view over the Tsavo. You will roll over 98 bridges, the highest standing at 43 metres and the longest crossing extending 215 metres.

The thought of mega coaches cruising at a high speed of 160 kilometres per hour is thrilling. If you drive, you must know that the legal maximum speed on most Kenyan roads is 100km/hr. Yet on the narrow highway Mombasa highway, careless drivers, slow wide-load hauliers and fatigue ensure you don’t hit the maximum speed for long.

It’s almost a sure bet that the train will thus not only edge out buses; it will most likely end up being the transport means of choice for personal vehicle owners plying this route, meaning less environmental degradation and low road maintenance cost, thus less fuel levy.

The Transport ministry projects that when up and running, the rail transport market share will shoot to 50 percent. The economic impact cannot be gainsaid as this will reduce the cost of transport and cost of doing business, attracting regional trade.

Currently, road transport is dominant in the transit of goods and services, meaning truckers and bus operators will be collateral damage. But again, how many trucks ply the Nairobi-Mombasa highway daily? How many days do some take to get to Nairobi? Freight wagons on the SGR will cover the distance in just eight hours.

Well, June 1, 2017 is several months off, but my heart beats faster when I think of this exhilarating adventure. The launch of phase II of the SGR-the Nairobi-Naivasha section-next week means even more Kenyans will have the chance to savour the new dawn.