Meet the women who will be steering new SGR trains for the first time in Kenya’s history

Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) line engine drivers Wendy Kathambi (left) and Alice Mugure in one of the locomotive engines during a training session at the SGR Nairobi Training College. PHOTO: GIDEON MAUNDU/STANDARD.
Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) line engine drivers Wendy Kathambi (left) and Alice Mugure in one of the locomotive engines during a training session at the SGR Nairobi Training College. PHOTO: GIDEON MAUNDU/STANDARD.

At least seven women are expected to drive the new Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) trains after completing their course in China.

They are part of a group of Kenyan students the China Road and Bridges Corporation (CRBC), the SGR contractor sponsored to undertake a railway course at China’s Baoji Railway Technical College.

Two of the trainees said they had been equipped with the necessary skills to steer the locomotives. Wendy Kathambi, 26, and 27-year-old Alice Mugure Gitau said they were happy with their achievements and ready to serve the nation using their newly acquired skills.

The two were part of the team that took part in the inaugural test-drive in March, which saw them drive passenger trains at the speed of 105 kilometres per hour. The train travelled from Nairobi South Passenger Station to Sultan Hamud and back. The same train shall be cruising at an average speed of 120 kilometres per hour.

“We were seven students in our class who were taken through many lessons including light diesel locomotive maintenance explained Gitau.

Defying myth

Gitau sought to dispel the notion that some jobs are meant for men. She said women can drive trains just the same way that men do.

“We were all born with capacities to perform all duties. I believe I can achieve anything I set my mind on. One can become what they wish to become,” reiterated Gitau whose background is procurement.

“After completing the procurement course, I undertook a Bachelor’s degree in Chinese Language and Culture. The course entailed a six-month session in Kenya and one year in China. I was later hired by a Chinese firm as a translator at the Railway Training Institute (RTI). It was while there that I learnt of the SGR training programme and enrolled for the course,” Gitau said.

Kathambi on the other hand says joining the male-dominated sector has always been her desire and is happy to have made it. “This is what gives me satisfaction after developing interest in new technology as far as railway development is concerned. It is a pretty new field and Kenya does not have adequate manpower to drive the rail transport,” she explained.

“I was undertaking a higher diploma in Electrical Engineering at the Railway Training Institute (RTI) and when the SGR training programme started, I opted for it,” says Kathambi who holds a diploma in Electrical Engineering.

Training Programme  

Kenya Railways Managing Director Atanas Maina was excited about the programme. “We have young Kenyan women engineers in the project. We want to expand the same into operations and maintenance in line with the Government’s directive. It is also well spelled out in performance contracting guidelines.”

He added: “This is the first time in the history of Kenya to have women taking charge of locomotive operations. The trainees have done well and I know they will do a good job. One of the areas the trainees will focus on after returning to Kenya is the practical aspect of the training.”

Experts say for one to qualify to operate a passenger train, they must undergo a-three-year training. Gitau said the fact that the training was carried out in English made it easy for them.

“The training was largely practical and this made it very interesting. We were taught how to drive a locomotive. We also had lessons on maintenance,” she explained.

After fulfilling all the requirements, the driver and his/her assistant must be issued with a locomotive key and walkie-talkies before setting out. This is after the dispatcher has stamped the driver’s licence.

President Uhuru Kenyatta will be launching the SGR on June 1.