In electric train era, the more the merrier, and Tanzania is arriving!

Saturday March 02 2024
sgr pix

An elevated section of the standard gauge railway (SGR) in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. PHOTO | THE CITIZEN | NMG


Finally, last week, the much-vaunted electric train pulled out of the Dar es Salaam terminal headed for the hinterland, to much fanfare orchestrated by government officials.

The often-talked about standard gauge railway was being tested, and the state spared no effort to make sure that everyone who could knew it was, at last, travelling out of Dar es Salaam on its much-delayed upcountry outing.

There was apparent hesitation in calling it an inaugural ride, surely because there was a certain tentative quality to it, although the triumphalism surrounding the event was quite obvious.

To provide a bit of background, it has to be remembered that the SGR project was one of the pet projects close to the heart of the late President John Pombe Magufuli, along with the huge Stiegler’s Gorge dam in the south of Tanzania and the resuscitation of a moribund Air Tanzania, still coughing and wheezing today.

First decided on in 2017, the SGR project has been delayed by a couple of years and some quarters were beginning to suspect it had been sent to the Greek calendar, especially now that its principal promoter was dead and gone.

This, despite the fact that Magufuli’s successor, Samia Suluhu Hassan, had, on a number of occasions, declared her determination to execute her predecessor’s will to the letter. “Kazi Iendelee!” has been Samia’s mantra, a response to Magufuli’s iconic battle-cry, “Hapa Kazi Tu!”


Now, it was being said, the doubters, detractors and naysayers were forced to eat humble pie as the train was whistling out of Dar on a journey taking it to Morogoro, 196 kilometres away. Surely, Samia was keeping her word, albeit belatedly.

There was generalised interest in the event, to be sure, because the central railway line, with the old, steam engine locomotives, has been sick for a number of decades, and the train that today’s old men and women used to travel in when they were in high school was all but crumbling.

In a demonstration of how state-run enterprise cannot sell ice cream to Arabia, the train was run into a near standstill although there was demonstrable need for the transportation of passengers and heavy loads all the way to the lakes in the northwest of the country, and on to Uganda, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, DR Congo and Zamus-and-lorry-bia.

At some point, talk was of powerful and rich bus and lorry operators bribing state agents to delay the construction of the railway in order to protect road haulage against the “encroachment” by the railway.

Such are the levels of crude selfish thinking that even such thoughts are given credence in Julius Nyerere’s own country!

That is one end of the spectrum of the event marking the coming of the electric train. The other end was the fanfare orchestrated by the state, including popstars and comedians chugging along, singing the praises of Samia Suluhu Hassan and all the wondrous things she is doing for Tanzania.

All that is fine by me, having been already accustomed to such empty praises, but the conductors of such choirs forgot to make sure the train ran smoothly to Morogoro. Hardly 15 minutes out of Dar station, power went off, restarted and went off again. And the distance that normal bus rides cover in two hours were covered in about the same two hours, give-or-take.

That is where questions are bound to be asked: Why would anyone give up road transport, which they catch anywhere on the road as the bus passes by, in favour of the train whose designated stations are immovable?

The vaunted rapid-transit of the train was surely a huge attraction, and we started hearing people enthusing about living in clean-air Morogoro and working in filthy, polluted Dar es Salaam on a daily commute.

Many questions remain unanswered, and that should surprise no one, basically because we have a government that believes in spindoctors rather press officers; they are bent on telling stories about everything being fine even when it should be okay to say crap happens sometimes.

For anyone listening to Samia’s spinmeisters, the first reaction is doubt, because one knows that there is a spin on everything to try and make Mama look good, which is not a bad thing as far as I am concerned, only it can go too far.

Willy-nilly, we are being dragged into the electric train, way before our techno-savvy would suggest, which means we will, for some time, be the laggards in a class of world beaters. Even in our little corner in the East African class, we have to take cognisance of Kenya as the leader in many things and cling onto her petticoats until we are on the other side of the river.

We will be competitors, no doubt — Kenya is still struggling with its own SGR — but, although the other countries recognise Nairobi’s prowess in these areas, there is no reason to suppose they will remain behind Kenya for very long. We want our fair share of those bragging rights.

In this modern and exciting electric-train era, the more the merrier, and Tanzania is arriving!