In 1900, when the Kenya-Uganda railway line was built, it brought about growth of urban centers along the route.
In Kenya, townships such as Athi River, Sultan Hamud and Uplands in Limuru mushroomed due to the new development.
Sultan Hamud’s story started in 1898 when Sultan Seyyid Hammoud bin Mohammed took a train ride from Mombasa to see the progress of the railway construction and how this would boost business between Zanzibar and the hinterland.
The farthest place the sovereign reached and camped still bears his name. It has since grown to become a highway stopover.
Fast-forward to the past decade when the SGR idea was conceived. Many people had memories of that golden era when passing trains changed peoples’ fortunes.
At the SGR inception and construction, government officials talked animatedly on the bloom that this infrastructural development would truck into the rural areas it would traverse. There was talk on having special economic zones in the Athi River and at the second phase, in Naivasha. Trade would boom as rural folks would exploit the opportunities created by the modern train.
We took a ride to Mombasa to see how the SGR is changing lives.
Third party business
By 9am at Emali bus stop, hawkers’ eyes dart left and right as they try to identify a buyer for their wares as vehicles slow down at the speed bumps erected next to the makeshift stalls.
A kilometre away is the new multimillion-shilling Emali SGR station, with its new imposing building standing out in this dusty township.
At 9:25am, the Mombasa-bound SGR train snakes past the town, passing just a few metres behind the makeshift market. Within minutes it disappears into the ritzy station, offering a few minutes’ glimpse of the modern transport marvel to the market traders. But that is all they are going to get for the hawkers are not allowed into the train stations.
This story is replicated across the eight stations that the SGR train stops to pick up passengers. For some stations like Athi River, Miasenyi and Kibwezi, there is no evidence that outside of it being a goods transport corridor stop, any secondary economic activity has resulted from these station’s existence.
During the SGR construction most of the then elected leaders clambered over the SGR bandwagon, touting the expected benefit their people would reap from the railway.
However, after the menial jobs dried and the line became operational, there have been no third party business opportunities.
It has also been argued that the Makueni, Taita Taveta and Machakos county governments, where the SGR line traverses, needed to spark the growth of logistics and industrial clusters along the transport corridors in their rural areas.
However, judging by the fact that these counties hosting the train stations are only active for a maximum of six minutes a day to accommodate the passenger train stops, then revert into inactivity, they will remain unattractive to any investors.
At the Voi station entrance, several motorcycle riders park 50 meters away, waiting for the two scheduled trains that stops at the spot at 9am from the Nairobi-bound train and midday’s Mombasa-bound one. At both stops, less than ten passengers alight with the massed motorcycle taxis jostling for their attention.
Only the Mombasa station has got the train’s windfall with the taxi drivers who flock there to transport the more than 1,300 passengers who disembark at the station.
When it strikes 1pm at the Miritini stop, several public service vehicles are parked on the access road shoulder awaiting security clearance to allow them into the station to pick up passengers.
At five minutes to 2pm, the train makes its final stop at the station and the jostling for clients starts for the $20 ride to Mombasa CBD. In under an hour, the sea of humanity ebbs away and the station, once again, is silent, save for the security vehicles at the facility.
The scenario is akin to that in Nairobi, where no development is allowed along the road that branches off Mombasa road to the Syokimau station. It remains a mere transit point, where passengers are dropped off or picked by waiting taxis for the trip into various destinations in Nairobi.