Still on SGR, about those figures…

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A cargo train is launched to operate on the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) line constructed by the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) and financed by Chinese government in Kenya's coastal city of Mombasa, May 30, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX389W3

The newly launched Madaraka Express has earned rave reviews on comfort, scenery, security and speed. Hannah, a passenger who has used it twice already, says that besides being better than the colonial train, it also has a very helpful and friendly crew.
“The last thing one should worry about is security… right from the point of boarding. You will have to bear with the security screening, which is akin to what one would normally find at the airports, “she says

Popular Nigerian political commentator, Adeola Fayehun, after throwing some shades on the overall construction cost, even admitted that the structures – the terminus and the rail – were magnificently done. Juxtaposing it against a similar project by Nigeria, she then called on her government to emulate Kenya.

But here is where the plaudits end. For a start, the express has no Wi-Fi. Neither is there much difference between the first and the economy class, apart from rotating chairs, price, sockets and small variance in the number of passengers. Questions also abound on the true speed of the train with a number of previous passengers saying that a Mombasa-Nairobi journey takes 8 hours where “official time estimates” stand at four. In his column in The Standard on June 13, Paul Wafula, in fact, claims that most of the things that take away joy from a ride on the standard gauge railway are not even on the train.

Factoring in interest on loans, the cost of constructing the Mombasa- Nairobi stretch of the railway comes up to around ksh500 billion. Though repayment is already underway, the ksh1.6 billion Government has been paying every 6 months since 2014 only goes to service the interest. The principle, to be paid at a rate of Sh14 billion per annum, will be dealt with later, between 2020 and 2034. Experts have pointed out that earnings from the railway alone will never be enough to service this debt.

At the very least, the rail will need to ferry an excess of 4,000 containers daily, and charge almost thrice the current rate for passenger service, which is a tall order considering that, according to economic analyst Robert Shaw, Kenya neither has the capacity to manage such cargo nor the demand. The decision by East African states to construct their own rail lines and the existence of alternative means of transport also means that the rail cannot enjoy a monopoly of cargo and passenger transport only by which these figures can be raised.

The most curious flaw of the railway operations, however, is the overwhelming Chinese presence. From hospitality to management, the same Chinese who did the construction do everything else. Add that to the question of costs and suddenly warnings of economic unsoundness seem real. The Nairobi Law Monthly has severally warned of the tripartite nature of Chinese development loans where use of Chinese labour and raw materials, in addition to payment on contracts, ex ante demands to any business. The Chinese have also been known to insist on intra-government socio- economic concessions as conditions precedent to any favourable terms of payment negotiated afterwards.

It should therefore not come as a surprise the heavy presence of Chinese traders, goods and burgeoning cultural presence in the country – which presence although crimpling domestic industries, the government can’t curtail.

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