Guest Post I Ronald Ssekandi I Xinhua. Bellowing out smoke, a locomotive pulling dozens of containers arrives in Uganda’s capital Kampala after a journey spanning hundreds of kilometers from neighboring Kenya.
Along the way, the train picked and dropped containers at various railway stations dotting the over 100-year-old network that links Uganda to the Kenyan seaport of Mombasa.
Railway transport has lived Uganda’s political history that has been punctuated by wars which at times brought the transport means to a grinding halt. Over the years, Uganda and Kenyan governments have given out concessions to companies in efforts to revamp the century-old railway network.
Kenya now has a modern railway, the Chinese funded and constructed Standard Gauge Railway (SGR). Uganda is also negotiating with China to finance the extension of the SGR to the capital Kampala and in the long run to its borders with South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda.
As the negotiations proceed, Uganda is also resorting to revamping its old meter-gauge railway line. The country’s president Yoweri Museveni in his various speeches, lately, has emphasized the need to revamp the line.
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the urge to have the network fully operational. Uganda’s COVID-19 cases have been pushed up by the high number of cross border cargo truck drivers who turn positive for the virus. This has caused a public uproar to have the drivers blocked from accessing the country, but President Museveni insists that cargo must move to keep the economy alive in the face of the pandemic’s negative impact.
Museveni has argued that increasingly cargo should be shifted from road to railway transport, which is cheaper and also reduces the impact that trucks have on the wear and tear of the road network in the country.
“A net ton of goods from Mombasa to Kampala by road is 13 U.S. cents while by rail, it is seven cents. Therefore, we, in Uganda, are going to repair the old railway line as we plan to build the new one, the Standard Gauge Railway,” the president said on May 4.
He said the key issue to address now is the availability of locomotives.
Following the president’s directive, National Enterprise Corporation, the commercial arm of the Ugandan military has started bush clearing, screening and maintenance of two sections of Malaba-Kampala railway line totaling 100 km and the 375.4 km northern railway line linking Tororo to Gulu.
In October 2018, Uganda secured 21.6 million Euros from the European Union (EU) to help rehabilitate the 375 km railway line from the eastern border district of Tororo to the northern district of Gulu.
Uganda, according to the finance ministry, pledged to top up 13.1 million Euros to rehabilitate the railway line that has been out of service since 1993, when there was insurgency in northern Uganda.
The Tororo-Gulu railway line used to be a pivotal economic artery along the East African Northern Corridor linking the Kenyan seaport of Mombasa and eastern Uganda to northern Uganda, as well as neighboring South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Matia Kasaija, finance minister described this part of the railway line, Gulu-Tororo, as critical to the country’s oil sector because of its proximity to the Albertine Graben, which has the oil wells.
“The railway project shall benefit from transportation of equipment and inputs for the construction and operations of the oilfields given the bulky nature of oil equipment,” Kasaija said on October 18, 2018 as he signed the financing agreement with EU.
Economic experts are optimistic that once Uganda’s commercial oil production starts, it will stimulate economic growth to beat the negative impact of COVID-19.
The railway line linking Tororo to the capital Kampala is operational. Katumba Wamala, minister of works and transport on May 21 told reporters that Cabinet approved a loan of 300 million Euros, part of which, would be used to rehabilitate this line.
Katumba also said government has revived the 9 km Southern Route which links Port Bell, a port on the shores of Lake Victoria, to the capital Kampala. Goods from the Tanzanian port of Mwanza are transported on water and when they reach Port Bell, they are loaded onto a train to the capital Kampala.
Government also plans to revamp the line linking the capital Kampala to the country’s border district of Kasese. Kasese borders mineral-rich eastern DRC.