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Kenya begins multi-billion dollar railway

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A construction worker walks through the dilapidated rails in Nairobi. Work has just begun on a new standard-gauge line between Nairobi and Mombasa. It's being funded by China, just one of numerous Chinese infrastructure projects in Africa

A Chinese-funded railway project in Kenya could transform transport in east Africa, and strengthen cross-border political and economic ties.

Kenya is known as the region’s logistics, trade and transport hub. Yet, its railway dates back to the colonial era and the 300-mile (483 kilometer) journey from Mombasa to Nairobi currently takes 12 hours for passengers — freight trains take up to 36. The railway is old and large parts of the tracks remain unused, while roads are crowded and traffic is slow.

In November 2013, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta laid the foundation stone for the construction of a new standard gaugerailway line in Mombasa that will connect the coastal city with the Kenyan capital Nairobi. “The project will define my legacy as president of Kenya,” Kenyatta told local media. “What we are doing here today will most definitely transform … not only Kenya but the whole eastern African region,” Kenyatta said.

‘Lunatic Express’

The Chinese-financed railway will be as big a game changer as the Lunatic Express was during its time more than a century ago.
Aly-Khan Satchu

The current rail network in Kenya consists of dilapidated British colonial-era lines. The notorious “Lunatic Express” was completed in 1901 and links Kampala in Uganda with the Indian Ocean town of Mombasa. The new line is hoped to cut travel time from Mombasa to Nairobi to four hours for passengers, eight hours for freight trains.

 

“The Chinese-financed railway will be as big a game changer as the Lunatic Express was during its time more than a century ago,” said Aly-Khan Satchu, who is a Sub Saharan Africa geopolitical and financial analyst and CEO of the Kenyan financial portal Rich. “Kenya is a transit state and if you want to embed that advantage you need to have a first-class infrastructure.”

The state-owned China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) will build the railway. The Chinese government has funded the first section of the project with $5.2 billion to build the Mombasa to Nairobi section. Work is expected to be completed by 2017.

“The railway development will have the following immediate economic benefits: reduce the cost of transportation in the region making it an attractive investment destination and accelerate industrialization through easier and cheaper transport and the establishment of new industries to service the new railway,” said Mr. Zhang, a business manager who oversees the Africa projects at China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), parent company of CRBC.

But the Mombasa-Nairobi section is only the first part of a much larger project. The standard gauge railway is planned to run between Mombasa and Malaba (in west Kenya) and eventually link to other major east African cities, namely Kampala (Uganda), Kigali (Rwanda) and Juba (South Sudan). With this, the Kenyan government is hoping to strengthen ties between those countries.

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