Can US$550M build a 934KM railroad?

The Lunatic Express 1.0

  According to Jimmy Wanjigi, an aspiring Presidential candidate in Kenya, Yes. However. research shows, this is a pipe dream. Some high-speed railway lines cost more than US$26 million a kilometer.  Several factors come into play when it comes to constructing High-speed railway lines.

Among these is safety. High-speed trains are just that –high-speed doing speeds ranging from 80Km per hour for freight trains to 360 KPH for passenger trains. In our case, the trains can do a top speed of 120 KPH for passenger trains. Such speeds mean that the trains have to be separated from other transport modes such as road transport. They also have to be separated from other users of the land such as wildlife and livestock for the safety of the trains and their cargo and others. Timely transit times also require such separation.

The Ethio-Djibouti Line, the first SGR line in Africa, whose design speed is 160KM cannot do such as speed because it is a level crossing. This resulted in frequent collisions with animals. To minimize accidents, the train does 50KM an hour. 

Since land is scarce for such separation high-speed trains run on elevated rails.  Elevating Railways lines and even roads is expensive which is why the suggestion that a 934 KM long railway line can cost $550 million is a joke.

The assertion that such a line could cost a tenth of the real price is the stuff falsehoods are made of. I chose to listen to the interview anyway. 

Jimi Wanjigi unveiled, screamed the catchline. I listened up to the part about the SGR. If I got him right, the original private-sector goal was just to lay the line, according to customer needs, then lease it to transporters who were to buy the own rolling stock- the Magadi Soda style. The Magadi soda mining company bought some sections of the Lunatic express 1.0 to ensure efficient delivery of their exports to the Port of Mombasa.

Lunatic Express 2.0 on stilts
Apart from harping on the cost- $589,000 per kilometer, he was mean on details.

 That sparked off further research on transport infrastructure costs. We start with roads. The 420 KM Kibwezi- Kitui road cost, on average, $438 036 per Kilometre; the 504 Kilometre Isiolo- Moyale Road cost $837,334 per kilometer, while the 11 Kilometre Dogo Kundu bypass at Mombasa cost $10M per kilometer. The 8.9 Kilometre Dogo Kundu phase two will cost $14 Million per kilometer lane. Here, there are two bridges measuring 2Km across the Indian Ocean.

According to Engineers, topography and terrain determine the cost of an engineering project. This is reflected in the cost per kilometer of the three roads referred to above. Relatively flat and gently sloping lands with fewer bridges and no elevations, such as the Kibwezi-Kitui terrain are relatively cheap. Rocky terrains such as parts of the Isiolo –Moyale road cost more. Bridges, Engineers say, form 30 percent of any road or rail construction project. This is reflected on the Dogo Kundu by-pass which has elevations, “a Berlin Wall,” interchanges, service roads, and link roads. What’s more, the Dogo Kundu bypass is four-lane, meaning there is four times more road than the distance.

The distance from Mombasa to Malaba is 934 Km by road. It is unlikely to be shorter by Rail. If a Railroad covering the entire distance can cost US$550 million, the average cost per kilometer will be $589,000. which is nearly what a class B road costs per kilometer.

Now let's turn to the cost of an SGR Railway line per kilometer in east Africa. Consider this; Kenya’s SGR cost US$4.43 million per kilometer while Ethiopia spent $5 million, Eritrea $ 5.05 and Tanzania's central Corridor will cost $4.05 million for the same length. It is worth noting that the cost of the Tanzanian line excludes the cost of rolling stock which will cost another $230 million. That will raise the cost to at least $4.40 million per kilometre.

So was Wanjigi, talking about a Railway line? Evidence suggests that it was not a railway line- at least not a Greenfield Standard Gauge Railway. It was perhaps a rehabilitation of the Lunatic express 1.0.

In his Interview, Jimmy Wanjigi says he walked out of the project due to differences in policy with the new government. Probably this is true because the initial plan was brutally capitalistic- placing national assets into the hands of the private sector is not wise. Even the World Bank-supported Privatization program of the 1980s and 1990s is experiencing clawbacks from governments unhappy with the level of service from the privatized assets.

It was not demonstrated that their proposed project was anywhere close to what we have. The public project was an EPC project incorporating construction, locos, and rolling stock.

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