“We are full,” an attendant at the booking office said when the Sunday Nation team visited Suswa standard gauge railway station.
“You’ll wait for another week if you have to book”.
A Daily Nation writer once provoked President Uhuru Kenyatta’s ire by calling it the “train to nowhere”.
It is clear the Naivasha extension of the Mombasa-Nairobi SGR train that operates passenger services three times a week is popular.
But it is not the most accessible place though. The four-kilometre drive on a bumpy, dusty road to Maai Mahiu station is not for the faint-hearted.
The extension to Naivasha after the completion of the Mombasa-Nairobi line was controversial from the start.
When the Chinese financiers baulked at giving more loans to meet the cost of building the next phase of the SGR from Nairobi to Kisumu and Malaba on the border with Uganda, the dream of modern train service to the West of the country from the Coast appeared dead.
The SGR ended at a desolate station “in the middle of nowhere”, but the government insisted on turning the railhead into a dry port.
The idea was that goods destined for western Kenya and across the border into Uganda, Rwanda, DR Congo and South Sudan would be offloaded, stored at a new Inland Container Depot (ICD) and then transferred to the old metre gauge railway (MGR).
The land was even set aside where Uganda, Rwanda and other transit destinations could build their container yards.
But there was a problem. By the time the train service was being launched, there was little in the way of a good all-weather road to the station or Naivasha.
There was no rail link between the station where the SGR line terminated and the old MGR station in Naivasha.
The old railway, built more than a century ago, was dilapidated and in need of restoration. It was not in a good condition for passenger and cargo trains.
When the idea of building a railway line was mooted, speculators rubbed their hands in glee, anticipating a windfall from the mega projects.
The railway was expected to shore up economic activities in Maai Mahiu, Suswa and other areas near the line. Prices of land shot up tenfold.
“The projects are a masterstroke. We will have a complete picture of Maai Mahiu in years to come. Landowners have been smiling all the way to the bank,” former Chamber of Commerce boss Njuguna Kamau said.
Now, the SGR and the Naivasha ICD are in the news once more, with Deputy President William Ruto vowing to undo the projects if elected.
Giving in to the demands of Coast leaders, Dr Ruto has pledged to put the Nairobi and Naivasha ICDs out of business and return operations to Mombasa.
“It was never the intention of the government to build the SGR and impoverish the Coast. It was meant to make the port more efficient, better and improve the fortunes of the Coast people. Unfortunately, some people took hostage of SGR with programmes that benefit a few to the detriment of the Coast,” he said.
“We will take administrative and legal steps to reverse what has become the biggest impoverishment of the region.”
He has also alluded to claims that Naivasha SGR station and the ICD are on land belonging to President Kenyatta’s family.
Cutting across landmarks, including Ngong Hills, Nairobi National Park and the Great Rift Valley, the meandering SGR line has put the desolate and semi-arid Maai Mahiu on the global map.
Just years ago, the town that derives its name from nearby hot springs, looked like a veritable wasteland, with acres covered by swathes of acacia.
Families with huge tracts of land in the area had no or little interest in developing them.
The railway station gives commuters a chance to enjoy the marvels of mother nature, including gazelles grazing in the grasslands.
The transformation is visible, with heightened activities at the station, including the completion of the MGR and SGR link.
Workers go through their drills with precision as the ICD near Suswa – but often called Naivasha ICD – takes shape.
The initial aim of extending the 120-kilometre line was to link special industrial zones in Naivasha – the home of OlKaria geothermal power plants – to Nairobi and Mombasa.
To attract investors to planned industrial complexes in the specially designated zones near Ol Karia, the government offered subsidised power.
The tentative plan included firms having electricity connected directly from Olkaria to ensure uninterrupted supplies, and in some cases, companies such as those dealing in apparel allowed access to steam.
Kisumu and Malaba
In Naivasha, however, the expected trickle-down effect – especially among traders near the ICD – is yet to be felt as epitomised by kiosk owner Beatrice Kerubo.
“Business has been slow, especially since the repair of the MGR. The number of trucks has drastically reduced,” she said.
Previously, she said, traders near the dry port used to make a killing.
“Many trucks used to arrive at the ICD for cargo. Unfortunately, things have changed. It is no longer the same story,” Ms Kerubo said.
Many traders near the ICD have shifted to other areas. Ms Kerubo says she is on the verge of giving up.
With the old railway line rehabilitated by the Kenya Defence Forces and the new metre gauge line connected to the SGR station, Kenya Railways in January successfully ran the first trial freight.
Cargo was loaded in Mombasa, transported via SGR and transferred to wagons on the MGR line at Naivasha ICD.
While flagging off the Malaba-bound cargo train, KR Managing Director Philip Mainga said rail transport is convenient for East African partner states.
He said cargo would no longer have to cover the entire 572 kilometres by road from Mombasa to Naivasha, thus also reducing road carnage.
“Transporters and importers can pick their cargo from Malaba 36 hours from the time the train leaves Mombasa. Customers may also choose to use the railway from Malaba to Kampala,” Mr Mainga said.
But services at the port have become a 2022 presidential campaign issue.
While on a tour of Naivasha, Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition party leading lights, including Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya, accused Dr Ruto and his Kenya Kwanza brigade of planning to sabotage railway and ICD services in Naivasha.
The claims by the Azimio campaign team echo similar concerns when the idea of setting up the dry port was mooted in 2017.
The row involved then Nakuru governor Kinuthia Mbugua and his Mombasa counterpart Ali Hassan Joho.
The Mombasa county boss argued that it did not make economic sense to create a dry port in Naivasha when Mombasa had a seaport.
Mr Joho added that such a move would create an employment crisis at the Coast, maintaining that he would not stop opposing it.
Dr Ruto at the time led the tirade and denunciation of Governor Joho and other politicians from the Coast opposed to the Naivasha dry port scheme.
Now Mr Joho is in the Azimio team backing the presidential candidacy of Mr Raila Odinga and pledging continuity of President Kenyatta’s infrastructure projects.
Dr Ruto is going around the country vowing to put to a stop some of the Jubilee government projects he vehemently championed.
Mr Munya said Azimio is opposed to any move aimed at transferring port services from Naivasha to another region.
He hailed the establishment of the dry port, saying it has helped create jobs and ease cargo transport across East and Central African borders.
Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry Nakuru Chapter chairman Stephen Thuo has urged politicians to stop trivialising the issue of the dry port.
“The port is a plus for local investors who have every reason to use it. There are immense gains,” Mr Thuo said.
He added that using the project for presidential and other elective seat campaigns is wrong, urging politicians to talk about creating employment for millions of young people across the country.
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