Getting Uganda Back On The Rails: What Is At Stake?

troche geneva;”>Along the old rusty rails, try women lay bunches of matooke, cassava, and ‘Nakati’ eagerly awaiting their esteemed customers. It is a local market for foodstuffs and other small household materials.

Such is the state of close to 80 percent of Uganda’s railway infrastructure today, whose operation and glory took to a steady downward trend since the 1970’s.

As of now, an articulate tale of life aboard a passenger train as a regular mode of transport may not be told by anyone below the age of 30.

Indeed looking at what is left of the once famous “Lunatic Line,” it is difficult to believe it at one point commanded the national transport sector that is imports, exports and passenger freights
across the region.

From the 70’s the railway experienced problems as traffic fell away, finances dropped and conditions of truck and rolling started to deteriorate.


Hence in 1992, passenger services were discontinued while the Pakwatch-Kasese and Busoga lines were ‘temporarily closed.’

Efforts to resurrect operations of the great ‘iron snake’ culminated in a concession signed in 2006 in which Rift Valley Railways [RVR] was entrusted by Uganda government with management of the railway taking over from Uganda Railway Corporation.

The lines being operated by the company under this concession include Jinja – Malaba, Kampala –Port Bell, Kampala Nalukolongo and Tororo-Mbale only from freight.

Realizing very little progress under the RVR takeover, Ministry of Works and Transport with an estimated budget of about USD 2.8Billion, has expressed strong determination to get the trains back on rails, of which money is expected to be generated both locally and from external

“A major European investor has already expressed interest in a possible financing of the new Sudan link,” said Okello Spiriano a senior planner at the ministry.

Okello further stressed that “such an investor may be expected to require some level of government involvement and it would be prudent to assure that say 20% of investment costs will be borne by government.”

Renovation of lines in some parts near the eastern border is underway and these are expected to be commissioned very soon.

State Minister of Transport, Eng. John Byabagambi has also confirmed that the Tororo -Pakwach refurbishment has been completed and trains should begin plying that side by the end of August this year.

The recently launched 15 year National Transport Master Plan also entails extension of Bihanga Kigali and Kasese – Kisangani routes intended to broaden the East African network into Rwanda and DRC.

But perhaps the most appealing is the reintroduction of a passenger train in Kampala city by RVR which would involve ferrying passengers from Namanve through Kampala to Kyengera.

National transport has lately been at the center of Uganda’s most political upheavals. Administrative flaws and the ultimate public uproar over public transport management contracts, poor road conditions, traffic disorders have been common headlines, often times compelling President Museveni to through his weight behind some of the key decisions therein.

The most recent presidential intervention was just in time to salvage pioneer buses from being auctioned off by Uganda Revenue Authority over an accrued sh 8 billion of outstanding arrears.

The reintroduction of railway into the mainstream national public transport system is being hoped to trim down tremendously on general transport costs of not only passengers, but also goods moving within the country to and from the coast and across the region as a whole.

The consequential reduction on the cost of production could also help trim down market prices for certain essential goods and services, but also help on decongesting especially of the city centre.

Nonetheless, what remains unanswered a question is of whether the ongoing squabbles in the RVR concession (now being felt more by local importers and exporters) will not be exacerbated once the company is introduced onto the main public transport domain.

RVR has on several occasions come under fierce attack from Ugandan traders for allegedly being overly profit minded.

Since its take-over in 2006 the cost of transporting a container from the coast for instance has shot up from $12000 to $19000.

Such and more of these misunderstandings have been unearthed during political uprisings in neighboring Kenya as Ugandan traders to stock more essential goods in advance in anticipation chaos.

The Concession itself has been contested on grounds that government bestowed too much liberty to RVR, making it too insensitive to clients and lacking a sense of corporate social responsibility.

Some time back national railway workers under their umbrella body Uganda Railway Workers Union raised an alarm calling upon government to cancel the contract and repossess Uganda railways.

They cited RVR’s failure to overhaul over half of the 43 locomotives inherited from URC “which are now in an appalling state.”

“Our marshaling yards are gradually but surely becoming scrap yards for wagons and locomotives,” said the Unions’ General secretary Mr.V. Byemara

Lots of legalities and administrative procedures would therefore need to be revisited before this grand step is taken, or getting Ugandans back on the rails might end up a flop if not a notorious boomerang.

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