Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) cargo train started operations on Tuesday, effectively cutting down the cost of transporting goods from Mombasa, and reducing time it gets to the destination. The new Chinese-built route aimed at cementing Kenya’s position as the gateway to East Africa was launched by President Uhuru Kenyatta at Port Reitz in Mombasa. The inaugural train boarded by President Uhuru Kenyatta was driven by two young Kenyan women who are part of team.
The railway is the country’s biggest infrastructure project since independence and a key selling point for the ruling Jubilee party ahead of the August elections.
“This is a very significant project not only to the government of Kenya, but also to us. We delivered the project which is set to serve the Kenyan people. Of course there were a lot of challenges and confronting different situations. We also had to maximize job creation for the Kenyan people and this was a priority,” stated Chairman of the China Roads and Bridges Corporation, Lu Shan.
According to the Northern Corridor Infrastructure Projects protocol, the SGR is expected to link at least four countries of Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and South Sudan. The completion of a route length of 472kms means that the railway still has to snake through rift-valley all the way to Malaba before it can link to Kampala
“Today is a historic day as we board #MadarakaExpress. We are Nation proud of our achievement and focus on transformation. God Bless Kenya,” Uhuru Kenyatta.
President Uhuru Kenyatta tweeted that Kenya had secured financing for the phase from Naivasha to Kisumu – about 150kms from the Uganda – Kenya official land crossing – along the shores of Lake Victoria. That has raised speculation that Kenya will only be working on the section to Kisumu, leaving Uganda at crossroads.
Here are some things to be seen on the train:
Language and translation– In most train services around the world, messages and announcements are routinely delivered in local languages with translations in English.
The (SGR) though has its oddities; messages in English have been translated only partially into Kiswahili making phrases that are a blend of the two languages e.g. ‘Kituo Cha Mombasa Terminus’ or ‘Watoto Carriage’ at the Mtito Andei Station. It is yet to be ascertained if this is by design or Chinese misinterpretation. Also to note on language use, is that the attendants on board are trained to speak in Chinese and English. Which begs the question “Why?”
Locomotive drivers- As a way of making the train attractive, SGR operators have been training young Kenyans to drive the locomotive under their watch. The inaugural train boarded by President Uhuru Kenyatta was driven by two young Kenyan women aged 27 and 23. They recently graduated from the Railways Training Institute under tutelage of the Chinese.
Some of these recruits are Shalom Njeri, a Chinese communication graduate from the University of Nairobi, and Elizabeth Wanjala, an education graduate from Kenyatta University, are both 24. The duo is part of an eight-woman team that will make up the 65 drivers who will be on the frontline, responsible for ensuring that the trips made on the standard gauge railway (SGR) are safe.
Contrary to popular thinking that the SGR trains, being more advanced than the current ones, although computerized, are still relatively hands-on.
Of this Wanjala said, “To be in this cab, you need to be able to snap into action at a moment’s notice. Training and experience is how we know exactly where to accelerate or slow down, or even where to start braking.”
For close to nine decades that the train has operated in the country, this is the first batch of female drivers. Never in her wildest dreams did Njeri think she would be a train driver. “It’s not the kind of thing you picture yourself doing, especially when you’re of the female gender, you know,” she said.
In as much as the SGR is being launched to ease and speed up movement of goods and services and is making history of sorts with a female crew, passengers will have to travel to the outskirts of their town centers to board them, making convenience a matter of perspective.