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Consultant tells gov’t, ‘You can’t develop a railway without vision’

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Kampala, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | A transport consultant has asked the government to consider allowing private companies to operate railway transport on government infrastructure.

Uganda’s developed rail network covers 1,250 kilometres, but currently, only about 20 percent of this is serviceable, with the rest either abandoned or closed.

Currently, the railway accounts for less than 2 percent of cargo transportation in the country, and less than 1 percent of passenger services, according to Paul Power, a consultant with Consultrans SAU, a global transport management and consulting firm.

However, even when there is enough capacity to cater for the existing demand, there is a need for the government to put in place incentives to attract people to embrace rail.

Power says rail will always be very important because of its contribution to the economy in addition to the low power consumption and carbon emission levels compared to other modes of transport.

Power says that just as it is in the energy, telecommunications and other sectors, the private sector has been allowed to use government railway networks around the world, especially by investing in wagons or locomotives.

This, he says, is because the governments cannot afford to have all the infrastructure and fund the rolling stock.

Power was contracted to head the Capacity Building Project at Uganda Railways Corporation as part of the efforts to revive the state company.

He says that currently, the railway network is almost irrelevant to the country’s economy as virtually all transport is done by road trucks and buses, adding that the is a need to create a financing model to support the system.

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This would include government subsidizing the sector because it is expensive and yet is not expected to make a profit, just like in other countries, according to Power.

Power told the just concluded Uganda-EU Business Forum in Kampala that one of the main challenges facing railway development in Uganda is the lack of a vision for the sector.

Much as a lot is being done with heavy government investments and support from development partners, he says, there is no vision or long-term plan to direct the sector.

Because of this, the railway transport sector is too disorganised, and unregulated, including in terms of safety and security policies, according to Power.

Uganda Railways Corporation (URC) is currently implementing several projects to revive the sector, currently reconstructing Kampala-Mukono, Kampala Port-Bell, as well as Tororo-Gulu.

The government has also got support from the African Development Bank to upgrade the Kampala-Malaba meter gauge rail and the plans to build the Standard Gauge Railway.

John Lennon Sengendo, the head of communications at URC welcomes the idea of government subsidies into the sector, agreeing that it is too expensive to run.

He says this is what other governments are doing, using a direct budgeting model for their railway systems.

On allowing the private sector, Sengendo says this would enable the corporation to recoup the investment it has sunk into the development of the network.

He adds that other countries, including Tanzania, are already doing it, but says Uganda can only be able to introduce private sector investments when the network has been expanded.

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