How Uganda Railway collapsed

Feb 21, 2012

It’s a busy evening on the Old Port Bell Road, with slow-moving traffic stretching across the railway line. Surprisingly, none of the motorists is bothered about the danger they are exposed to by staying over the line for long.

By Thomas Pere

It’s a busy evening on the Old Port Bell Road, with slow-moving traffic stretching across the railway line. Surprisingly, none of the motorists is bothered about the danger they are exposed to by staying over the line for long.

Although this may look a daring act, it is not an isolated case. Besides, such occurrences have become the order of the day on the rail lines.

In spite of such behaviour, accidents are rare as trains use the line irregularly.

To many people, the careless motorists’ behaviour is an every day spectacle since the once vibrant railway line is a shadow of its former self, over 100 years down the road.

“My mother was surprised when she saw one of the Rift Valley trains in Nakawa recently. She said she thought there were no more trains in Uganda,” Moses Opio, a resident of Kireka, says.

Opio’s mother used to see trains in Lira, but that was a long time ago. Like Opio’s mother, many Ugandans think trains no longer operate. It is hard to see a functional train even in Kampala.

Elsewhere across the country, the existing railway infrastructure is characterised by buried or old rails, dilapidated buildings and rotting wagons.

The Uganda Railway, also known as the Lunatic Express, was built by the British colonialists under the foreign office. Works on the line started at Mombasa port in the Kenya colony in 1896 and reached Kisumu, on the eastern shores of Lake Victoria, in 1901.

In 1931, the line reached Kampala. Although most of the line was in present day Kenya, the original purpose of the project was to provide a modern link to transport raw materials out of, and manufactured British goods into, the Uganda Protectorate.

The project cost was estimated at $793m in 1902. Its first services started in 1903.

On the Uganda side, the railway line covers 190km, from Kampala to the Kenyan border, and 8km between Kampala and Port Bell. From Kampala, it continues to Kasese in western Uganda, making it approximately 1,600 kilometres from Mombasa in Kenya.

At Tororo, the northern leg of the railway system branches north-westwards, through Mbale, Soroti and Lira to end in Gulu town. From Gulu, the line continues west to Pakwach, about 1,500 kilometres northwest of Mombasa.

Good old days

Mzee Musisi, a technician with a power firm on Nasser Road in Kampala, says: “I was in P6 when Uganda got its independence. The trains were using coal at the time and at each station they stopped, they re-filled with water.”

They had about 10 coaches, some for carrying cows and others for passengers.

“The ones for passengers were divided into several grades, where you would pay according to the class you boarded,” Musisi explains.

That time, the rails were busy, ferrying people and goods, especially cotton, copper and coffee, across the country. “Back then, the wagons were new, there were lights and roadblocks to control traffic at the crossing points. Today, it is like the trains no longer operate.”

The colonialists used it to get supplies, equipment and other things to run the colony smoothly. The train got copper from Kasese, cotton from West Nile and Lira and coffee from Bugisu and central region.

What went wrong?
The Summit Business Review says from the mid-1970s on, traffic declined, finances came under stress and the condition of railway infrastructure deteriorated. The Lunatic Express is today barely a shadow of it former glory.

“A combination of civil strife, low investment and neglect, has negated the initial contributions of the railway to the region’s economic growth and development,” the magazine indicates.

Service levels have reduced, and for long periods the track was not operational, with large portions of the route unusable or vandalised.

According to statistics, out of the total of 1,266km rail network in Uganda, only 330km is operational. They are the Malaba-Kampala line, Tororo-Mbale, , Kampala-Port Bell, Kampala-Nalukolongo and Jinja-Kakira. Other lines were closed either due to their technical deficiencies or low traffic volumes.

Current state
The line’s management changed from the Uganda Railways Corporation to the Rift Valley Railways (RVR) in 2006. The Rift Valley Railways consortium took over the operations of the Uganda and Kenya railways after acquiring a 25-year concession in November 2006.

The takeover of the century-old line eyed more investment to upgrade the line, reduce inefficiencies and improve revenue generation.

Presently, RVR is operating the Kampala-Mombasa route, but only for freight services.

Kamdor Bharat, the managing director of Mahavir Enterprises, believes that despite the minimal use of the line, the cargo services offered by RVR are vital. He, however, says transport fares went up after the RVR takeover.

“To transport a container from Mombasa to Kampala used to cost $1,300, but they reviewed the rates to $1,900 and above.

Besides the rates going up, there is no guarantee of delivery, which makes it not viable, especially this time when the shilling is not stable.” Bharat adds that RVR needs to improve on delivery time and computerised systems so that the ‘big fish’ don’t always get priority when booking for space.

Key challenges
Since the railway line became property of Uganda, a lot has changed. From the super services it used to offer during the earlier years of independence, the line no longer transports passengers but cargo only. It has delapidated infrastructure and its northern and eastern routes have been dysfunctional for the last 23 years.

Charles Mutabazi, an operations manager with Berteen Business Systems, a clearing firm, notes that people no longer use railway transport.

“RVR needs to overhaul and modernise the line to attract customers.”

He observes that it is for this reason that the firm transports mainly heavy goods, especially those above 28 tonnes, like tiles, paraffin wax, wood, glass, hard minerals like copper.

Future plans
Brigadier Timothy Sabiiti, the commander of UPDF engineering brigade, in a recent media briefing at Mbuya said the army’s engineering brigade would start railway reconstruction in July.

He says the engineering brigade has acquired enough capacity to carry out engineering tasks, including building infrastructure.

RVR could not give an outline of its plans for the sector when contacted.

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