‘Lunatic Express’ rides troubled rails of privatisation

As an engine of the once-proud Kenya Railway chugs through East African darkness, a sleepy bartender rouses himself with a surly belch and scowl in a dilapidated carriage and slams a bottle of lukewarm beer on the counter in front of Benjamin Maluva.

Maluva spends many evenings in the barcar of the colonial-era train as it makes the 500km journey from Nairobi’s rugged, hilly terrain through wildlife-rich plains to Mombasa’s palm-fringed Indian Ocean shores, and for him the treatment is no great indignity.

The clothes merchant commutes regularly between the capital and his home in Machakos, about 60km south-east, and watches grimly as railroad staff lounge on weathered leather benches during his three weekly trips aboard the halting train.

“The train has been taking too much time and time costs us money,” Maluva says, as the cars squeal to a halt for yet another of several lengthy emergency repair stops that can often turn the scheduled 12-hour trip between the capital and the coast into an 18-hour endurance test.

“The workers are lazy and maintenance is bad,” he gripes, adding his voice to a chorus of complaints about the state-owned railroad, which government officials hope to restore to its former exotic grandeur with a privatisation deal that has now been blocked by court orders in two countries.

Known as the “Lunatic Express” for its exorbitant construction cost and the perilous dangers of disease and tribal and wildlife attacks its original builders faced in the late 1800s, the 104-year-old Kenya-Uganda Railway has fallen on hard times, falling deeper into debt and decrepitude as its rolling stock grows rustier by the day and service more sporadic.

With monthly deficits of more than $2,7-million mounting, the Kenyan and Ugandan governments in October announced a plan to turn the cash-depleting venture over to a South African-led consortium for 25 years beginning in February 2006.

But the concession — under which the Rift Valley Railways Consortium, led by South Africa’s Sheltam Rail Company, is to invest $322-million to improve the fading Lunatic Express — has stalled amid lawsuits from unions and pensioners concerned about job and benefit losses.

Earlier this month, judges in Nairobi and Kampala temporarily derailed the transfer pending completion of the lawsuits and urged out-of-court settlements that appear unlikely as the consortium has thus far refused to budge on layoffs and retirement cuts.

While the lawyers wrangle, Maluva, his fellow passengers and even some railroad employees wait impatiently for change.

“We are hoping that once privatisation comes through, things are going to improve,” says Maluva, raising his voice to be heard above workers’ slurred complaints about meagre wages and uncertain job prospects given the consortium’s plans to slash the labor force by more than half, from 9 500 to 3 300.

“We are not breaking even now,” says Jasper Onyango, an engineer keen on the plan and convinced the new owners “will be very generous” with severance packages and retraining for those who lose their jobs.

Others, particularly casual workers hired on daily contracts who make up about 25% of employees, are less certain and say they will likely not fare better than unprotected labourers who died of disease and lion attacks when the railroad was being built.

“We haven’t been paid since June,” says one such worker, a cook who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We don’t want to work, we just show up hoping we’ll be paid.”

A veteran conductor nods in agreement, lamenting that the lack of wages coupled with the poor state of repair has sapped workers’ morale.

“I’m not scared about whether or not I keep my job; I just want to be paid what I am due,” he says, adding that after 30 years of service on the line that is the least he is owed.

Thus, for now, train regulars — passengers and employees — will have to be content with what little the Lunatic Express has to offer.

“One thing I know, Kenya Railways has failed,” says Maluva. “But at least they serve beer.” — AFP

Subscribe to the M&G for R2 a month

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

And for this weekend only, you can become a subscriber by paying just R2 a month for your first three months.

Related stories

Stigma remains hurdle in Kenya’s fight against Aids

<img src="http://www.mg.co.za/ContentImages/291293/aidsday06.gif" align=left>Awareness campaigns have succeeded in reducing Kenya's HIV/Aids prevalence rate to 6% in 2006 from 10% in the late 1990s, according to a United Nations report. But HIV-positive Kenyans, like Akinyi, are often stigmatised by strangers and family alike who remain ignorant about the transmission and symptoms of the disease.

Somalia’s woes grow in Kenyan refugee camps

Mohammed Abdi Guhad sits idly in the shade of a makeshift wooden kiosk, explaining his plan to return to Somalia and fight for the country's powerful Islamist movement. "I would rather kill than stay here doing nothing," he says, rubbing his hands in anticipation of leaving a dusty United Nations refugee camp in north-east Kenya where he has lived since fleeing unrest in his native land six years ago.

Subscribers only

ANC: ‘We’re operating under conditions of anarchy’

In its latest policy documents, the ANC is self-critical and wants ‘consequence management’, yet it’s letting its members off the hook again

Q&A Sessions: ‘I think I was born way before my...

The chief executive of the Estate Agency Affairs Board and the deputy chair of the SABC board, shares her take on retrenchments at the public broadcaster and reveals why she hates horror movies

More top stories

DRC: Tshisekedi and Kabila fall out

The country’s governing coalition is under strain, which could lead to even more acrimony ahead

Editorial: Crocodile tears from the coalface

Pumping limited resources into a project that is predominantly meant to extend dirty coal energy in South Africa is not what local communities and the climate needs.

Klipgat residents left high and dry

Flushing toilets were installed in backyards in the North West, but they can’t be used because the sewage has nowhere to go

Nehawu leaders are ‘betraying us’

The accusation by a branch of the union comes after it withdrew from a parliamentary process

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…