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UGANDA: Railway Revival Planned

Joshua Kyalimpa

KAMPALA, Jan 9 2010 (IPS) - The collapse of the Uganda Railway Corporation 15 years ago opened up lucrative opportunities for privately-owned road transporters. But the high cost of maintaining the highways carrying heavy truck and bus traffic is leading government to take a fresh look at the rails.

Rift Valley Railway train: after several false starts, there is new impetus to rebuilding an East African railway network. Credit:  Frederick Onyango/Wikimedia

Rift Valley Railway train: after several false starts, there is new impetus to rebuilding an East African railway network. Credit: Frederick Onyango/Wikimedia

Plans are afoot to repair railway connections across East Africa. Kenya is to work on the link as far as the border, with Uganda Railways taking over from the border town of Tororo. Bilateral agreements between Uganda and the government of South Sudan provide for refurbishing the long abandoned line from Gulu to South Sudan’s principal city, Juba.

Also scheduled for repairs is the Kampala-Kasese line, and connections to Rwanda and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo to reduce transport costs, according to Uganda’s public works minister, John Byabagambi.

“The cost is not only to governments. Transporters spend a fortune to repair trucks, which often break down because of potholes,” says Byabagambi.

Awali Mugwa, a truck driver for one of the private cargo transporters, says he has to repair his truck at least twice on each 820 kilometre journey from Kampala to Mombasa, the Kenyan port through which much of Uganda’s exports and imports pass. After 15 years of driving the Mombasa route, Mugwa says it’s risky to drive without a mechanic.

“There are known spots on the route where you will be lucky if your truck does not break down,” says Mugwa.

Unfortunately this cost is passed on to the consumer, making goods in the region very expensive. According to Isa Sekito, spokesperson of the Kampala City Traders’ Association, the owner of a 17-tonne truck will charge the equivalent of 5,000 dollars for a trip from Mombasa to Kampala.

Statistics indicate that 400,000 to 700,000 cargo trucks to the hinterland passed through Uganda last year, most of this traffic originating from the port of Mombasa. The Kenyan port handles virtually all cargo to and from Rwanda, Burundi, DRC, South Sudan and Uganda.

The Uganda government has been advising business people to shift from importing through the port of Mombasa, which is congested and expensive, to Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam. But the cost of bringing goods more than 1,600 kilometres over land – twice the distance to Mombasa, has discouraged most from switching.

In a desperate attempt to maintain the roads, East African states have introduced axle-load limits, against opposition from transporters. Axle load is the maximum weight of a container per pair of wheels allowable for a given section of road track.

“We lose millions in repairs to our trucks, and the axle load means further losses, because we are being asked to carry less cargo,” says Steven Tasobya, chairman of the Uganda Commercial Transporters’ Association.

East African states have made several previous efforts to revive the rail without success. A 25-year concession was granted to Rift Valley Railways (RVR) to run the 900km railway line from Mombasa to Kampala, but they are already in trouble.

Uganda and Kenya have been considering whether to terminate the contract or not, after RVR failed to improve the railway system, blaming financial constraints and disagreements among shareholders.

Until August 2008, South Africa-based Sheltam Ltd, owned by Roy Puffet, was the main investor in RVR with a 35 percent stake. But he was forced to step aside after disputes with financiers.

Uganda and Kenya are reluctant to terminate the services of RVR, despite claims of incompetence, because neither country is confident in its capacity to run the business themselves.

But now the World Bank is set to finance the rehabilitation of the regional rail network.

Robert Zoellick, World Bank Group president, has pledged to help Uganda develop access to the ports to ease trade, and deepen East Africa’s regional integration. “If it has the right infrastructure, such as railways, Uganda is well placed to overcome the hurdles of being landlocked and promote regional trade.”

To further regional integration, Zoellick said, the bank would finance rehabilitation of the line between Kampala and Mombasa port, as well as extensions to South Sudan and Tanzania, to further regional integration.

The East African states are planning use the World Bank funding to replace the 100-year-old rail link from Mombasa to Kampala, badly dilapidated due to age and lack of maintenance, with a modern standard-gauge railway.

The World Bank will bring in expertise from countries like India to advise on effective design and coordination of this cross-border infrastructure project.

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