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The BBC's Nick Blakemore
"Homes close to the tracks were engulfed by the fire"
 real 56k

Monday, 21 August, 2000, 15:00 GMT 16:00 UK
Kenya's crumbling railways
A train carrying gas explodes into flames at Kenya's Athi River town.
At least 25 people died in the fuel train explosion
By BBC News Online's Solomon Mugera

Kenya's railway system was once coveted as the safest mode of transport in a country where road carnage claims thousands of lives every year.

In fact, Kenya's railway line remains a life line to its landlocked neighbours who rely on the Kenyan port of Mombasa for their exports and imports.

But over the years, the century-old railway line has crumbled under the weight of lack of investment, negligence and incompetence.

The result has been a litany of disasters leading to heavy human and financial losses.

The reasons given for the accidents has varied from financial constraints, to what the management once referred to as an act of God.

Disaster history

  • In 1993, 114 perished in a Mombasa-bound passenger train which plunged into a river after floods washed away a bridge at Ngai Ndethya.
  • In 1999, 32 died at Tsavo National park when brakes on a passenger train failed forcing it to jump the rails.
  • On 15 August 2000, 13 died near Kenya's fourth largest city, Kisumu after a passenger train rolled back due to failed brakes.
  • On 19 August 2000, at least 25 were burnt to death after a goods train carrying gas rolled back, smashed into stationary wagons and exploded.

Technical support

An inquiry into the Ngai Ndethya tragedy cited poor maintenance and inspection procedures, dismissing the management's assertion that nature was to blame.

bodies of the Athi River train disaster
There is growing public concern over KR's safety

It is no secret that the Kenya Railways Corporation (KR) has over the years experienced dire financial constraints raising concern over the corporation's capability to guarantee safety for its passengers and cargo.

The management is aware that the country's main railway lines cannot cope with the heavy load of cargo - but the revenue gained from through-traffic to and from Uganda and Rwanda is important for Kenya.

Whenever an accident occurs, transportation of transit cargo is subject to unwarranted delays and costs which have to be met by KR.

But the management says there have been improvements in its maintenance services over the last two years after engaging services of a US company.

According to the KR public relations manager, Eric Kathanga, America's General Electric has been supplying locomotives and providing technical support to the corporation.

train wreckage
Kenya's landlocked neighbours heavily rely on the railway line
"Over the past two years, we have been strict on maintenance. We now have a team of experts from the US to work on reliability of our tracks", Mr Kathanga told the BBC.

He however gave no details of how much investment the corporation had ploughed into maintenance.

Probing the causes

The recent series of train accidents has cast doubt on any hopes that KR has a deliberate and sustainable plan to guarantee safety and reliability of its services.

Whenever tragedy strikes, KR has been fast to set up teams to probe causes.

However, the 1993 train horror, the 1999 derailment and this year's incidents, carry enough evidence of what the major causes are.

The Daily Nation pointed to insufficient financial support, lack of standardised maintenance, negligence and in the Athi River case sheer criminal incompetence.

The Kenyan Government has already annouced privatisation of the Railways corporation.

Six consortiums have been shortlisted to bid for its management contract.

But there is scepticism that any of the shortlisted investors would take on a disaster-prone and problem-riddled concern like the Kenya Railways Corporation.

Not until it gets its act together.

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See also:

25 Mar 99 | Africa
Kenyan train crash kills 32
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