By Gitura Mwaura

One of the major news in the Rwanda transport sector this week has been the announcement of the scheduled start of the construction of the Standard Gauge Railway to Kigali from the Tanzanian port city of Dar es Salaam this year.

The move followed a bilateral meeting last Sunday between Presidents Paul Kagame and John Magufuli in Dar es Salaam during which they directed their respective infrastructure ministers to chart out the financing model that will pave the way for the immediate commencement of the construction in essence signalled the birth of the project.

The development concretised the beginning of the realisation of a national aspiration that has been long in the making.

Notably, the railway is set to be the first of the two-prong SGR – one prong from Dar es Salaam along the Central Corridor, and the other from Mombasa via Kampala on the Northern Corridor.

This will uniquely place Kigali at the centre of economic activity, bridging the gap between the Central African region and the East African Community, especially in the mining, agriculture and industrial development sectors.

This necessarily anticipates an intermodal passenger and freight cargo enterprise that will seamlessly combine rail, air and road modes of transport opening up the hinterland, if one takes the example of the Eurasian Resources Group’s broad mining interests in the wider region, including of cobalt through its Metalkol Roan Tailings Reclamation project in the Democratic Republic of Congo (also see, “Why Kigali lies in the path of China’s Silk Road”, The New Times, May 20, 2017).

Already, in a concerted intermodal plan, the cargo and passenger terminals comprising a total of 370,000 square metres are under development in specified allotments in the northeast of the city in Masaka (cargo) and Ndera (passenger). This will include SGR extension to Bugesera International Airport, also currently under development.

In the meantime, Tanzania has already started construction of the first phase of its SGR consisting of a 205-kilometre stretch from Dar es Salaam to Morogoro in the central region of the country. The railway will, in its totality, run about two thirds through Tanzania before branching off to Kigali at Isaka in Shinyanga region. It will also be at Isaka that the SGR will be expected to branch off to Bujumbura when Burundi is finally ready.

In the Northern Corridor, the first phase of Kenya’s SGR from Mombasa to Nairobi is complete and already operational for both freight cargo and passengers. Construction of the next phase to Naivasha is already underway, to be followed by Kisumu on shores of Lake Victoria and on to Malaba on the Ugandan border.

Though currently fraught with financing challenges and timeline concerns to Kampala, all indications are that the SGR is on course.

There’s little doubt about the viability of the SGR on the corridor, of which Uganda remains the largest of the hinterland market accounting for over 80 per cent of the multi-modal transit of goods from the port of Mombasa.

In addition, the dividends will be immense. Rail transport provides for a greener option as trains burn less fuel per tonne mile than road vehicles. Trains carry more freight at the same time compared to trucks and, on average long-distance freight movement is quicker and cheaper.

For instance, transporting a 40-foot container between Kigali and Dar es Salaam currently costs around $5,000 (RwF 4.3 million) by road, of which the SGR is expected to reduce the cost by about a half.

On the whole, when the SGR project is complete across the EAC countries, it will be a great boon for shippers as much as for passengers with Kigali poised to enhance its regional economic influence. It will serve the imperative to get connected to the wider region, as much for economic purpose as for leisure in the changing and undulating cross-border landscapes while enhancing regional integration along the way.

With this, it will underscore the truism that, throughout history, the world has developed because we created a road infrastructure long before the towns and cities rose up following the commercial route.

The SGR will be re-telling the story of the old railway line whose construction began at the port city of Mombasa in British East Africa in 1896 to open the hinterland. Only this time the train will dock its final turn-around destination farther inland.

Twitter: @gituram

First Published by – The New Times.

Gitura Mwaura is a Nairobi, Kenya-based writer currently working as a media consultant with various organisations. He is an author and development journalist previously involved in the areas, among others, of gender and conflict management as a researcher and human rights activist working with various local and international non-governmental organisations.

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