East Africa’s High-Speed Railways: Cleaning the crap

The Electric train: underperforming
 The race to modernize East Africa’s railways has triggered a hail of confusing false reports. So diffuse is the crap that, one could be forgiven for thinking our governments are run by buffoons who just sunk some US$ 20 billion down the drain. 

The crap ranges from the absurd to the foolish. Here we intend to rubbish the crap. The root of this misinformation is twofold: the anti-Chinese sentiment in the West and propaganda by Tanzanian President Magufuli. Magufuli once lied that the Tanzanian Railway line will cost a million dollars a Kilometre. Most commentators on social media do not appear to have learned anything new since then.

 Of course, government opacity on the projects also fed the misinformation. They should have answered such questions as; when was the decision to invest in high-speed railway lines made? Why? How and why were the contractors chosen? How were the costs determined, and by whom? How were the financiers chosen and why? Despite this bit of opacity, however, some of the projects are up and running.
 And so does disinformation. One of the ridiculous narratives is the comparison of a complete and commissioned line with one under construction and pretend that the former can learn from the latter. That is the case with the comparison of the Tanzanian and Kenyan standard Gauge Railway lines. Kenya can learn nothing from Tanzania because her line is operational while Tanzania’s is under construction. It should be the other way round. In fact, a comparison of the rolling stock and Locos is outright stupidity since Tanzania is yet to buy any Locos or rolling stock. 

 Here, in line with our tradition of telling the truth,  we shall compare similar things- the Ethiopian line with its Kenyan counterpart because both have been operational for more than two years now. 
We will return to the Tanzania line later. 

 The Addis-Djibouti line is 705 Kilometres long, connecting landlocked Ethiopia to the Red Sea via Djibouti. It is electricity propelled. it is designed to run at 120- 160KM an hour. It cost US$5.5 billion to complete. It has been running for four years now. 

The Kenyan Railway line is also operational. It is designed to connect landlocked countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan, and Eastern D.R.Congo to the world through Kenya’s Mombasa Port on the Indian Ocean coast. So far, 510 Kilometers is complete and operational. It is diesel propelled. It cost US$5.6 billion. However, the project is far from complete since it is yet to reach Malaba on the Kenya-Uganda border. 

 So why did the Kenyan line cost more than the Ethiopian line yet it is nearly 200Km shorter? Three major causes come into play. One of them is the terrain, the other is the quality of the Rail, and the third is the standard of construction. The Kenyan line is, for the most part, elevated in a range of 3-43 Meters above ground, due to the country’s rugged terrain, and the fact that it traverses national wildlife parks. The major determinant of the decision is to maintain the gradient of the line at two, in order to ensure steady speed along the line. 

 Consequently, the line boasts of 29 bridges, some kilometers long. The bridge across the Nairobi national park, for instance, is the longest at 6.8 Km. In addition, there is a 4.1 Km tunnel along the line at Ngong. More bridges will be built as it crosses the Rift Valley towards Uganda. The entire Railway line will have no crossings but underpasses. 

A Double stack Freight Train
 Engineers tell us that, bridges contribute 30 percent of road and railway construction costs because of embankments and backfills. This means that a railway line with no bridge is 30 percent cheaper than one with bridges.

 Further, the railway line is Class 1 Chinese standard, which according to Engineers, is a better quality standard anywhere in the world. The Northern Corridor railway line is designed for high capacity haulage at 22- 35 million tons a year and accommodates double stack wagons on 800-meter long trains.

 The Addis-Djibouti line on the other hand is a class two Chinese standard with a capacity of 10-22 million tons a year. It accommodates single-tack wagons in a 2Km long train. The Line has a low elevation hardly 2 meters above the ground because of the relatively flat terrain. It has level crossings instead of underpasses, which is risky for a train whose maximum speed is 160 KPh. It is electricity propelled, unlike Kenya’s which is diesel propelled. 

 The two lines have been in operation for more than two years and are comparable in terms of their performance and impact so far. According to publicly available information, the Kenyan line had moved 948,800 TEUs and 4.37 million passengers by end of August 2020. We must note that the Kenyan line was grounded for five months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic also affected the Addis-Djibouti line. 

There is very little information on the Addis- Djibouti line. However, a 2019 study established that it suffers operation constraints among them; frequent p/*ower outages which force the train to stop anywhere. The outages, the study found, last for up to three hours, in some instances more. Up to October 2019, said the study, the train had lost 48,000 hours due to power outages. 

 It also reported frequent collisions with livestock along the line, which results in protests by the owners that close the line for days. To avoid collisions, the study found, the train now restricts speed to 50KPH for a train designed to run for 160 KPH. In April 2019, for instance, says the report, a train derailed because it ran into a flooded and muddy section. It is not clear how much business it does. 
The first bridge of the Kenyan
Line at  Mombasa

Now we can comment on the Central Corridor from Dar-es-Salaam Port traversing Tanzania. From videos on the line’s progress posted by the Tanzania Railways Corporation, TRC, the line is elevated for 2.9 KM above Dar-es-Salaam city. Beyond there, the elevation is hardly two meters. The Phase1 section is a relatively flat terrain requiring no major elevation. There are a number of underpasses, short bridges, and culverts between Dar-Es-Salam and Morogoro. It appears there will be tunneling in the hilly sections but it is not clear yet, how long the tunnels will be. There are no level crossings this far. 
The central Corridor line is an AREMA standard, putting it in the same class as the Addis-Djibouti line. It is electric with a design capacity of 10-22 million tons a year. 

 The three countries have one thing in common: they all do not have sufficient power to run electricity-powered railway lines. Ethiopia’s installed generation capacity as of August 2018 was 4300 MW, Kenya has an installed capacity of 2561 MW with a peak demand of 1978 MW, Tanzania’s installed capacity in 2019 was 1600 MW. This low capacity is not enough to power the current domestic and industrial demand. 

However, they are all investing in new generation capacity. An electric Railway needs 1000 MW. On this score alone, an electric railway line is, for the time being, a white elephant. That is why the Addis-Djibouti line is in a sort of limbo. The Tanzanian electric line, given the current power generation capacity, is likely to run into similar problems.

 Let us turn to costs. The Tanzanian line was initially touted as the cheapest in the region. Tanzania’s President Magufuli even bragged that it would cost US$1 million a kilometer. Information in our possession shows that the Dar-Es-Salaam Morogoro section will cost $1.45 Billion dollars, which works to US$4.8 million per kilometer- and that excludes the rolling stock and Locomotives. Kenya’s line cost just about 5.2 million per kilometer- inclusive of rolling stock and Locos. Tanzania has borrowed some $1.9 billion in commercial debt to extend the line to Matukupora- from Morogoro some189 kilometers away. 

This section is hilly and will require tunnels thus raising costs above the Dar-Morogoro section. The cost of both the Kenyan and Addis -Djibouti lines are public knowledge. However, the cost of the Tanzania line is confusing. Even now, it is not clear what the total cost will be at the end of the day. Some reports say it will cost US$7.5 billion dollars. Others place the cost at $14.2 billion. President Magufuli, initially said the cost was $1.45 billion for the entire project.

 Both the Kenyan and Ethiopian lines were financed by China and built by Chinese Contractors while Turkish and Spanish contractors are building the Tanzanian line. It is not clear what is wrong with Chinese debt. Tanzania also got some loans from the Turkish Exim bank. 

 A debt is a debt and whoever borrows is a slave of the lender. However, there is a narrative worldwide that Chinese lending practices are predatory. How true that is, is unclear. 

From the analysis above, it is clear that Kenya’s Railway line is superior to the other two. It is the more active of the two operating lines. Three, the source of propulsion-diesel is a deliberate choice since Kenya did not have, nor does she have the electricity generating capacity to run a high-speed railway for now. Experts tell us that it will require a 1000MW dedicated to the Railway line. Kenya chose diesel propelled engine to avoid the embarrassment of stalling trains, which would damage the reputation of the line and render it a white elephant.


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