Waiting on the train …

By on April 3, 2017

I really don’t like trains. I can almost certainly say that I fear them. My childhood was swarmed with several books and movies about train crashes it molded me into a life-long hater of trains and railways.

The only few things I fear more than trains could be hot porridge, naked electricity wires and a UPDF soldier. It will come as a surprise, a shock and perhaps a disappointment to many train lovers that I have only ever boarded a train once in my life. And that was not so long ago when the Namanve-Kampala Train was making its maiden voyages. Many Ugandans were excited about the project and even though I was not among them, I too attempted the route, just so I would have another horrible story to tell my great grandchildren – should I survive the ordeal.

As fate would have it, the day I boarded the train was perhaps one of my worst days ever. A child who sat near me threw up all over the place, the little child’s mother kept feeding the rascal boiled eggs (which generated a foul smell that made another random passenger throw up next to me), everyone was struggling to breathe and there was a general sense of madness. And I was hungry.

By the time we got to the train station in Central Kampala, I was sure I would never board a train again, not even if I was paid to board one.

So very recently when I received a call from the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) team about a train project they are working on, I was sure that the Universe was working up some sick joke and my name had been thrown in as a way to ruin my life.

The plan was to take a number of enthusiastic Ugandans through the proposed SGR Eastern Route, all the way from KM 0 at the border with Kenya up to Km 273 in Kampala where the route ends. We were going to look at the route, understand what will be involved in setting up the system and finding out why the route would cost a whooping USD 2.3 Billion. We were also going to find out about the nearly 7000 Project Affected Persons (PAPs) including compensation plans, as well as to understand where exactly the route was passed.

I am not one to turn down an adventure, albeit about trains. So I set aside two days and did the one thing I have dreaded my whole life – got emersed in trains. 

Understanding the Basics of SGR Eastern Route Project

Uganda is constructing the Standard Gauge Railway Eastern Route as what the technicians have refereed to as a ‘China Class 1 Railway System’. This new railway system will achieve speeds of up to 100 Km/hr for cargo and 120 km/hr for Passengers. The Electric rail system of the Eastern Route will run from Malaba at the border with Kenya, through Tororo, Nagongera, Buwola, Nakawa, Iganda, Magamaga, Jinja, Nyenga, Lugazi, Mbalala, Namanve and finally end up in Kampala City. The railway will require 50 MW of power which will generously be provided by UMEME following an understanding between the two institutions.

It is expected that the SGR will have a minimum of 50% of the freight market share, taking as much cargo off the roads as possible. Which is quite a relief especially with the massive accidents, massive road wear and tear as well as the emissions from trucks. The Eastern Route will run for 273 Kms from Malaba to Kampala, with 53Km of wetlands, swamps and other such areas. The entire project will cost US $2.3 Billion which will cover the locomotives, the trains, the stations as well as electrification of the entire railway.

KM ZeroPosing for a photo with SGR technicians, journalists and members of the media close to the location for KM Zero where the Eastern Route will officially begin. In the back ground is River Malaba which separates Kenya and Uganda and from where both countries will begin construction of the Railway running into their respective countries.

For The Businessman

Currently, as businessman, your cargo will take its sweet time traveling from Mombasa to Kampala. If you are lucky, it will last anything from 5 days to 10 days. Otherwise, your cargo will take a whooping two weeks before you are able to sniff it in Kampala. With the SGR system, the plan is to have this cargo spend just 1 day on the road. As in, 1 calendar day! I am not a business of worthy magnitude but I think this is something of worthy note.

With the current system crawling from Mombasa to Kampala carrying no more than 800 tonnes as the pay load, the SGR system has a target of hauling no less than 3000 tonnes. Another worthy point to note.

And this is before we talk about the snail pace of the old system which at its very best is supposed to be 65 Km/hr but currently limps at anything between 15 and 25 Km/hr. The SGR system is projected to run at speeds of 100 Km/hr for Freight / cargo and 120 Km/hr for Passengers.

Roffings Namanve

The current RVR system that feeds into Roofings at Namanve Industrial park. Each of the industries in Namanve will have an opportunity to ‘tap’ from the SGR system and into their own premises from where materials can be dropped or picked and taken to the main loading area at Namanve Station.

For the Sight Seeing Traveler and selfie taker

According to Dr. Emmanuel Iyamulemye the Deputy Project Coordinator of SGR Eastern Route, the design of the SGR Railway is one that has been created not just for efficiency but also for the eye to feast on. The route will pass through some eye catchy areas that include River Mpologoma, River Nile, several swamps and marshes, a number of mind blowing areas in Eastern Uganda before ending up at the Namanve Station where it will then connect to the Kampala Station.

Each of the major stations shall be a sight to behold and there is promise that as much as transport will be the key factor at the stations, sight seeing and selfie taking will most likely be a prominent activity as well.

Some of the most spectacular attributes of the SGR Eastern Route will definitely be the bridges. The designs of the bridges are simply amazing. The entire Eastern Route is littered with bridges to the tune of 21Kms in total – this represents 9% of the whole journey.

River MpologomaThe bridge over River Mpologoma will be a whooping 2.4 Kms of absolute beauty supported by viaducts and reinforced with all kinds of spectacular attributes along the way.

When I asked Ali Kikomeko the SGR Jinja area manager about the Jinja Bridge, he proudly mentioned that he expects it to be one of the most beautiful yet. The bridge will cover about 997.6m (just under 1 Km) but will only cover 220m over water. This means that the rest of the bridge length will simply be beauty on both ends across the river.

C7sOKAnXUAEyAtAAn artistic impression of the proposed Nile Super Bridge which will be 1km long, axle loading 27.5 tones per axle, it will have no pillars in water.

Lt. Starring Okame Zandi the area manager for Buikwe was himself quick to mention that the various bridges along the route shall have a minimum of 5.2m clearance, which can make for great visuals and photography. Basically, the entire SGR Eastern Route will be one long tourist trip.

SelfieDavid, Myself, Arthur and Stephen on at the spot on River Nile where the Bridge will be constructed. This bridge will be 997.67m with a 220m viaduct over the water. There will be no construction in the water as the eco system in the water MUST NOT be tampered with.

For the Skeptical Ugandan

As has been the case with a number of Ugandan projects, there is a hint of skepticism still flying around. This probably explains why a bunch of MPs put together several questions including the  type of railway, comparisons with Kenya and Ethiopia, the speeds and capacities of the trains, the overall costs, sources of power and duration of the project.


A Bulldozer demarcating the SGR Corridor in Bugona village, Busolwe Sub-County Butaleja district.

While the Ministry of Works and Transport has invested substantial time and resources in demystifying the various wild allegations about the SGR Project, there are still several Ugandans who are not entirely satisfied with the plans that have been put in place. As one of such people, I will continue to watch the progress of the SGR while quietly making notes about the pertinent issues that spring up to my mind for instance what will be the size of the skirts of the ladies working on the train, will there be WIFI on the train and most importantly, will there be alcohol served on the train.

Also, as a well meaning Ugandan who would like to actually see this project see the light of day, I will pay keen attention to the timelines and budgets that have been set aside. For the USD 2.3 Bn that has been earmarked for this project, one should expect that by the time of completion of the project, there should be more answers than questions and Ugandans should brace themselves for a propulsion into the middle income regions that Citizen 001 is always preaching about.

“A slow feeling of gathering sadness as each familiar place flashes by the window and disappears and becomes part of the past. Time is made visible, and it moves as the landscape moves.” ― Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas

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