Infrastructure development is at the core of the development agenda of the Jubilee administration. The standard gauge railway stands out as the standard bearer infrastructure project under the administration and arguably in post-Independence Kenya.
Since the first phase from Mombasa to Nairobi in 2017, the railway has enhanced transportation of both passengers and cargo, opening new opportunities for business and employment.
It is on the basis of this that the government extended the project from Nairobi to Naivasha. Unfortunately, the complete circuit that was to end in Kisumu and eventually Malaba on the Kenya-Uganda border hit a brick wall after the financier, Chinese government, pulled out of the project on the grounds that it would not make business sense as it cannot payback and worse, would pile up more burden on a country sagging under huge loans.
On Wednesday, President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the completed section of the railway that ends in Suswa, Narok County.
In itself, the launch raises questions than answers. Suswa is small trading centre without the capacity to handle increased passengers and large cargo volumes. But the more vexing question is, what happens to passengers and cargo offloaded there?
And where are the numbers to sustain the Nairobi-Suswa commuter train?
Though not explicit, that the line has not reached Naivasha sends an uncanny feeling that the government may not have the resources to complete the route.
Not that Naivasha is any profitable a destination, inasmuch as it is being promoted as the new inland depot. The Nairobi-Naivasha trunk will cost Sh150 billion.
In all these, there is a more fundamental challenge that is not being addressed, which is the viability of the project as a whole.
Constructing a rail line is a major feat but not an end in itself. The railway is a means to an end. It enhances transportation and therefore business. Realising commercial benefits is predicated on proper utilisation. Suswa terminus does not afford any of that.
At present, there is disappointment over the performance of phase one between Mombasa and Nairobi that cost Sh350 billion.
It is making losses and cannot justify the huge investment made. Not surprisingly, the government has resorted to underhand tactics to boost volumes, compelling importers at the Mombasa port to use the train to haul cargo to Nairobi, which is a roundabout way of creating a monopoly in a liberalised economy.
That has precipitated a crisis with large truck transporters staging protests to push the government to annul that rule.
Unless the second phase is extended to the final destination that includes revamping the old metre-gauge Naivasha-Kisumu-Malaba railway, the whole project risks being another white elephant.
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