More than a century after a colonial railway gave birth to modern Kenya, the country is betting on a new Chinese-built route to cement its position as the gateway to East Africa. The $3.2 billion (2.8 billion euro) railway linking Nairobi with the port city of Mombasa will Wednesday take its first passengers on the 472 kilometre (293 mile) journey, allowing them to skip a hair-raising drive on one of Kenya’s most dangerous highways.
The railway is the country’s biggest infrastructure project since independence, and while it has courted controversy, it is a key selling point for the ruling Jubilee party ahead of August elections.
It is also part of a “master plan” by east African leaders to connect their nations by rail, with the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) planned to eventually link Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan, Burundi and Ethiopia. “There is no country which has ever developed without having a very robust railway system. It was long overdue,” Kenya’s Transport Minister James Macharia told AFP.
He said not upgrading the railway in over 100 years “has dragged us backwards in terms of development.” It was on May 30, 1896, that colonial Britain began building a railway from what is today Kenya’s coast to improve access to the riches of Uganda, showing little interest in the wild land in between.
The railway, steeped in tales of swashbuckling colonial adventure and beloved by tourists up until its last, creaking journey in April, is credited with shaping Kenya into its current form.
The capital Nairobi, today a regional hub, was a swampy outpost with no particular attraction until it became the headquarters of Kenya Railways. The construction of the railway is the stuff of legend, with British and Indian workers terrorised by a pair of lions said to have devoured some 135 men.
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The train was later dubbed the “Lunatic Express”. Some see a touch of folly in its successor too.
In as much as the old line traced the development of colonial Kenya, the new railway has proven a mirror for modern Kenya: dogged by corruption accusations, battling environmental concerns while trying to position itself as the gateway to east Africa.
The World Bank, and others, warned that building a new railway, instead of refurbishing the old one, was by far the most expensive option. However, the government went ahead with the project, skipping an open tender to make a direct deal with China — whose Export?Import Bank has loaned Kenya 90 percent of the venture’s cost.