Rail link from port of Mombasa a major letdown

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POLYCARP IGATHE

It was delightful to visit the port of Mombasa on Wednesday September 19, 2012 in the company of board members of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers and the Kenya Shippers Council.

We witnessed firsthand, that at long last, chronic port congestion and inefficiencies are being tackled – bravely by Kenya Ports (KPA) and timidly by Rift Valley Railways (RVR).

The host, Mr Gichiri Ndua, KPA’s Managing Director and his team waxed lyrical about the gains, efforts and challenges at Kilindini port.

Ship to shore gantry capacity has more than doubled. Dredging of the port is complete and the new berth 19 is almost finalised allowing the Port of Mombasa to handle a 16 percent growth in cargo throughput.

Some of the largest shipping lines are now able to call and enables Kilindini to become a transhipment port.

We can confirm that delays in cargo offtake and high cost of cargo transportation are the result of dismal failure in improving railway infrastructure in tandem with port infrastructure.

Citadel Capital and Transcentury, the major shareholders in RVR must simply know that they have failed the land and country in outstanding fashion.

RVR’s invoice charge on 20 foot containers is usually equivalent to road transporters despite their customer service being significantly poorer. RVR is running trains at speeds of less than 10kph, and many times cargo is held up at Changamwe for reasons which members of KAM and Kenya Shippers Council (KSC) are fatigued to listen to anymore.

Bottlenecks are always at the top of the bottle. As such, shareholders of RVR must wake up and deliver on the job as promised… no more ‘progress’ stories. The rail bottleneck has eroded competitiveness of manufacturers in East Africa and frustrated the creation of badly needed ‘productive jobs’ for East Africa’s youth.

How can RVR be satisfied with only offtaking 4pc of freight traffic from the port? Kilindini is the only port in the world known to rely 95pc on road freight to evacuate cargo inland.

In recent weeks reports have filtered on RVR being funded to import steel that shall smoothen curves on the rail between Mombasa and Nairobi resulting in higher train speeds.

How much of the steel received has been installed to date? To what extent shall train speeds increase? On the ground intelligence suggests train speeds will improve from 10kph to 20kph. If this is true, the rail curves project embarked on by RVR is a good joke in a bad circus.

It is therefore music to the ears to learn that China Roads and Bridges has signed a commercial contract with the Kenya Railways Corporation for commencement of the standard gauge rail from Mombasa to Malaba and perhaps into Kampala.

This is a game changer project. How else under the sun shall Kenya harness and commercialise the plenty we have found within our borders (oil, gas and coal) in recent days without a functional railway managed by committed institutions?

Another big challenge at the port is power outages that ignite long down times of ship to shore gantry equipment.

As we toured Kilindini, we noticed such equipment with downtime of seven hours on the very day. Sufficient electric energy is critical to power and drive efficiency of ports and rails.

It is already alarming to see long delays in affording requisite funding support to enable commissioning of viable, sustainable and socially meaningful power projects such as Turkana Wind Energy.

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