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Does Uganda need Standard Gauge Railway now?

Passenger boarding train wagons in Kampala

Passenger boarding train wagons in Kampala

Right from the onset, Uganda and East Africa have had a rocky relationship with rail lines on account of issues stretching from the terrain, jiggers; blood-thirsty lions, and the cost at which these rail lines were put in the ground.

These snags have traversed generations and showed up in different forms across East Africa to haunt the rail line: the Rift Valley Railways saga, Kenya’s signing of contracts with China to build the Madaraka Express/Standard Gauge Railway [SGR] under questionable conditions, and cries of incompetence that stained management on the Ugandan arm of the rail line.

It has been [inaccurately] said that lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice; truth is it hasn’t waited long enough to strike Uganda the second time on this occasion masked as a fast-moving, modern, electricity-powered rail line — the standard gauge railway (SGR).

A standard gauge railway (SGR), is a rail line system whose distance between rails ranges from 1,420 mm to 1,460 mm. It’s faster, carries more cargo, and is more stable than the metre gauge rail network whose track gauge is 1,000 mm (1 metre). The SGR can shoot to speeds of 200km/h, while the meter gauge can run at 110km/h with modifications.

Many countries in the broad East African region have undertaken the initiative to build an SGR in Ethiopia, Kenya; construction is ongoing in Tanzania while Uganda is toeing the line to start works. The idea of an SGR was birthed in 2014 by the presidents of Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan and this prompted President Museveni to quip, “The road cargo transport is a wrong method of transport”.

He further stressed the urgency of a modern railway. To date, only Kenya is living that dream after the completion of the Madaraka express in 2017. Enticing as the idea of an SGR may sound because of its speed, bulk handling, efficiency and the like, the building of an SGR is a bad idea that is going to come back to bite the country hard as it possesses more downsides than it does benefits for a country with the economy the size of Uganda. And this is why.

To begin with, the SGR is going to worsen Uganda’s debt burden by $2.2 billion, raising the total public debt to $22.727 billion (Shs 83.5 trillion); that is over $11 billion borrowed since June 2017. Such is going to be the effect of the SGR alone on the national debt without considering loans got for other projects.

This inrush of monies will increase the volume of money in circulation which will cause the further depreciation of the shilling and rise of prices — inflation. This is, therefore, an untenable position the government is taking because it’s going to further anchor the country in debt, seeing as in the same breath the government will be taking out another loan to bankroll its heated pipeline (EACOP).

As is, Uganda can’t service the SGR and EACOP loans! In an August 6, 2022 NTV Uganda interview, the state minister for Transport Fred Byamukama mentioned that works on the SGR would start with the Kampala-Kasese line to connect the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

This is defective because in spite of the fact that the eastern part of DRC has got copious amounts of gold, tin, tungsten; it is extremely risky because of the heavy rebel presence according to the Conflict and Political Violence Index 2014. This rebel activity is bound to frustrate commerce on that end of the SGR.

Technocrats backing the rail line should have considered the fact that it isn’t economically feasible because Uganda doesn’t produce enough to warrant it. And so, for the most part, the SGR is going to be underutilized. Kenya is facing the same challenge despite having access to the ocean and being the most industrialised economy in the region.

As per Bank of Uganda’s Export and Values for the FY 2020/2021 Uganda’s total exports were $5.2 billion: over half of this figure ($2.2 billion) is attributed to gold alone which the UN report S/2021/560 indicted Uganda for illegally smuggling from Congo.

Even then, the value of our exports is less than Kenya’s 2020 World Bank estimate which is upwards of $6 billion. This implies that we don’t export enough to optimally utilize the proposed rail line and like our more economically established neighbours, Kenya, are going to suffer to fill cargo quotas.

Because of the expensive nature of loans that are going to be acquired to build the railway, Uganda Railways Corporation (URC) will be looking to turn a profit to pay back the debt; suggesting that transporting cargo on the SGR is going to be more expensive for the day-to-day trader who will find it cheaper to move their cargo by road.

Using Kenya as an example, moving a container on the SGR costs Kshs 120,000 [$1,080]. On road, the same load would cost between Kshs 64,000 ($576) and Kshs 85,000 ($765), signaling that a similar scenario is bound to play out in Uganda and the SGR will struggle to get customers; worse still, sweat blood to pay its own operational costs.

This is to say nothing of corruption, which has established itself as the main currency for Uganda’s development plans. It will not be surprising if the SGR is a conduit for illicit payments to gluttonous officials.

In 2015, former permanent secretary, ministry of Works — Charles Muganzi blew the whistle on an alleged $1 million bribe paid to sixteen government officials and technocrats to influence the awarding of a contract to Chinese companies for the construction of the SGR.

This is proof enough that there are back-door deals taking place, kickbacks, and money ‘changing hands’ to ensure the SGR takes off not so much for the change it’s going to bring, but for sheer avarice as has been the norm for sizeable projects.

It is for the aforementioned justifications that instead of incurring the cost of building a SGR, the run-down meter gauge is spruced up. Because unlike the SGR that has been forecast to cost about $2.3 billion, and later $3.5 billion to move to Kisumu; it will cost $1 billion as attested by the former managing director of URC — Stanley Sendegeya to redevelop and bring up to code the old meter gauge railway.

Besides, the meter gauge rail network has cheaper locomotives, wagons and is economical to electrify. A broad gauge or standard gauge railway can be thought about in the future, and not the present time. If countries like Malaysia [world’s twenty-fourth largest gross exporter] can run their major railway network of over 2,700 kilometres [Malayan Railways Limited] on the meter gauge system, so can we.

The prevailing non-accountable environment, global economic situation, and high indebtedness of Uganda dictate that the SGR isn’t practical as it has in the recent past left Kenya and Ethiopia gasping for debt relief on loans they acquired for their rail lines.

It’s illogical to spend top-dollar on the SGR whose high freight charges will alienate people for whom it is intended [for] — the business class. For now, it’s in with the old— metre gauge, and out with the new— standard gauge.



+2 #1 kabayekka 2023-01-25 10:06
Mark Kidamba you have a point indeed. Such mismanagement for Uganda has been on going over 50 years.

Don't you think that by the year 2075 Uganda as land locked would be using fast electric trains all the way from South Africa to Egypt?

And from Kenya to the Congo? Because universal technology develops very fast than stupid human corruption!
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+3 #2 John Ngubiri 2023-01-25 11:10
I have never attended economics. But, how about Lake Victoria? The Railway passes Kisumu. Can we pick our cargo from Kisumu and bring it to Port Bell via water?

A meter gauge from port bell to town surely need no upgrade. Protbell to town is about 10km. So other than laying 100s of rail kms, why not use the lake? If SGR is to serve congo and rwanda it can start from portbel and if it makes no sense, it goes to hell
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+1 #3 Akot 2023-01-25 20:43
kabayekka, thanks.

But, it takes good governance to ensure infrastructures are built & taken care of!

Unless Ugandans end Museveni's evil rule & take control of their land, things will only get worse, while Chine builds fragile infrastructures!

Why haven't Ugandans understood they MUST UNITE to be FREE of Museveni, then put in place the kind of governance they want?

Why is Museveni assured of lifetime rule & will be replaced by his son, while Ugandans complain, fight one another to ensure their enslavement for good?
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+1 #4 Akot 2023-01-25 21:02
John Ngubiri, understood.

It takes real governace, with the people ensuring they are well governed, to ensure development, thus services!

Soon 37 years on, why still look up to Museveni who calls Uganda "my Uganda" & doesn't care about Ugandans?

Why is Museveni being lifetime ruler & Uganda being his family business, not concern of Ugandans?

Once, president Obote was angry with what parliament decided & bushed in parliament to make his stand! The then Speaker asked him to leave, but he refused! So the Speaker asked police to lead the president out, but he refused to obey, so they carried the president & thrown him out of parliament like a thug!

Why is Uganda belonging to migrant Museveni & him controlling every institution, normal for Ugandans & he should just rule for life?
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+1 #5 Henry Baisi 2023-01-28 18:52
Uganda needs the Standard Gauge Railway. It is central to creating a transport infrastructure for the modern world. What we call infrastructure in Uganda today is at best rudimentary.

That is why the narrow roads are over-congested. Travelling in Kampala is a nightmare. The issue is Uganda today does not have the human capacity to operate let alone build a railway.

That being the case, best to leave it to future generations to sort. That is my opinion. I welcome a debate if there any takers.
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