Rail is the key to untangling port traffic in East Africa. But how long will it take?

By Shem Oirere, special to AJOT

Congestion has for long remained a major challenge for ports in Eastern Africa but lately some of the countries in the region have unveiled huge modern railway construction projects as one of the initiatives to create efficiency at their ports, but for how long will the new rail networks support port operations considering the long history of underfunding of scheduled repairs and maintenance of such infrastructure?

The underfunding of railway transport, which is a cheaper option in moving cargo from ports to inland destinations, has been blamed for the collapse of the once vibrant railway transport systems in Africa forcing importers and exporters to rely on the more expensive road transport in collecting and delivering cargo from the region’s ports.

In fact, the African Development Bank says the rail transport across the African continent faces the same constraints and challenges as elsewhere in the world but the region’s challenges have been aggravated by the poor economic, technological and institutional conditions.

 The cross-sea Kigamboni Bridge under construction in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania being executed by China Railway Construction Engineering Group and China Railway Major Bridge Engineering Group. The 680-meter-long Kigamboni Bridge, the longest cable-stayed bridge in East Africa.
The cross-sea Kigamboni Bridge under construction in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania being executed by China Railway Construction Engineering Group and China Railway Major Bridge Engineering Group. The 680-meter-long Kigamboni Bridge, the longest cable-stayed bridge in East Africa.

Current railway infrastructure in some of the countries, including in East Africa, is outdated “sometimes approaching a point of no return and the operations are clearly below international standards.”

Despite the grim picture, there appears to be a paradigm shift in East Africa, a region with the fastest growing economies in Africa at an estimated 5.3% in 2016 ahead of North Africa which recorded 3% growth rate in the same year.

There is an increase in cargo volumes at the ports of Mombasa in Kenya and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania creating urgent demand for efficient inter-modal logistics systems to accommodate the surge in imports and exports.

Effective ports

Ahead of the construction of two separate new standard gauge railway projects linked to the ports of Mombasa and Dar es Salaam, the respective port operators launched infrastructural developments to create additional capacity to allow for bigger ships and more containerized cargo. An efficient railway and road transport network became necessary to support smooth and fast flow of cargo from these two ports.

“Efficient ports are mostly associated with efficient and effective rail and road connectivity,” said Catherine Mturi-Wairi, the managing director Kenya Ports Authority (KPA), which manages the port of Mombasa.

“With the SGR operational, the port is set to attain operational efficiency due to fast cargo offtake by rail which, in turn, increases the port’s capacity to handle bigger and more ships at reduced dwell times,” she said in June, when the test-runs on the new railway line had been completed. The $3.8 billion SGR project was built by China Road and Bridge Construction.

Prior to the completion of the 472-kilometre SGR line, KPA had completed the first phase of the Mombasa Port Development Project with financing from the Japanese government, when it commissioned phase one of the second container terminal creating an additional capacity of 550,000 TEUs. The SGR line links the port of Mombasa to an inland container depot in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, whose capacity has been expanded from 180,000 TEUs to 450,000 TEUs.

The container terminal project and the new SGR line coincided with an increase of the Mombasa ports total cargo traffic which grew by 2.4 per cent from 26.73 million tonnes handled in 2015 to 27.36 million tonnes in 2016 according KPA.

“The increase was mainly attributed to improvements in productivity arising largely from more investment in modern infrastructure, associated equipment and automation of port operational processes,” said Mturi-Wairi.

She said the port handled 23.12 million tonnes of imports in 2016 which was 1.9% more than the previous year. In addition, Mombasa port handled 3.66 million tonnes of exports in 2016 up from 3.53 million tonnes in 2015.

This increase in cargo volumes at the Mombasa port has coincided with the commissioning of the 472-kilometre standard gauge railway line. The rail links the port of Mombasa to an inland container depot in the country’s capital Nairobi whose capacity has been expanded from 180,000 TEUs to 450,000 TEUs.

SGR Operations

Commissioning of the full commercial SGR Freight Train operations will start in January 2018 which is expected to significantly improve cargo offtake from the Port of Mombasa to the Nairobi Inland Container Depot. There will be four trains per day with a capacity of 4,000 tonnes per train according to Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Transport and Infrastructure Mr. James Macharia.

The SGR Freight Train-single stack has the capacity of 216 TEUs full load while the double stack SGR Freight Train has capacity for 432 TEUs full load, he said in September. It is estimated the SGR trains will ferry 22 million tonnes of cargo every year.

Already, the government has announced 40% of all cargo through the port of Mombasa will be transported by the SGR trains at a cost that is 50% cheaper than road transport. Kenya Railways Corporation, the State-owned operator of railways in Kenya, has reduced to $500 the cost of transporting one container from Mombasa to Nairobi. It costs double the price to transport the same container by road.

In neighboring Tanzania, East Africa’s second biggest economy, construction has commenced on a new standard gauge railway line that will link the congested port of Dar es Salaam to Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.

A consortium of Yapi Merkez Insaat Ve Sanayi of Turkey and Mota Engil of Portugal have commenced the $1.2 billion first phase of the project. The phase links the port to Morogoro, a distance of 300 kilometres.

Using the current metre gauge railway and roads within the Central Transport Corridor, which is anchored on the Dar es Salaam port, it takes an average of 3.6 days to transport a container from the port to Mutukula border point between Tanzania and Rwanda. This is longer than the government’s target of 2.5 days.

The delay has been blamed on the imposed speed limits of 50km/hr and the long and regular personal stops caused by drivers along the route according to a survey by the Central Corridor Transit Transport Facilitation Agency (CCTTFA). The Agency has been formed by Burundi, DRC, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda to oversee, manage and improve the central corridor trade route that is anchored on the port of Dar es Salaam.

When the new SGR line is completed, it is expected that the collection of containers from the port of Dar es Salaam will significantly improve operations at terminals within the port including fast flow of cargo to and from the port. This is critical in reducing the ship turnaround time and could substantially reduce shipping costs.

“We don’t need shipped containerized items and other cargo to spend too much time at the port upon arrival; that’s why we are also focusing on constructing railway lines and roads,” said Makame Mbarawa, Tanzania’s Minister of Works, Transport and Communication during a press briefing in June.

He said time taken to transport cargo to neighboring landlocked countries will be reduced to 13 hours from the current 24 hours.

According to Tanzania Ports Authority director general, Deusdedit Kakoko, construction of the new railway is closely linked to efforts by the Authority, which manages the port of Dar es Salaam, to improve efficiency of cargo flow to and from the port.

“Once the construction is complete, we will do away with time wastage whereby cargo ships are compelled to wait to dock to offload cargo due to limited space,” he said.

The entry of the private sector in the development and operation of railway networks in East Africa has raised hopes that the new SGR projects in Kenya and Tanzania could turn out to be one of the many long-term sustainable options for port operators of Mombasa and Dar es Salaam in addressing efficiency and hence boost confidence in the ports among shippers and shipping lines.