The final day of May 2017 will mark a new age of economic progress for the Republic of Kenya; this is when President Uhuru Kenyatta will climb aboard the new Standard Gauge Railway, which people will know as SGR, for a maiden ride from the port city of Mombasa to the bustling metropolis of Nairobi.
The SGR project consists of high-speed locomotives and modern train wagons that will zip across a wide portion of Kenya in less than five hours. This train is able to travel at speeds of 120 kilometers per hour; a significant improvement upon the old rail system, which used to take between 12 hours and forever to connect the two cities.
A Historic Achievement for Kenya
When considering the infrastructure of Kenya, the SGR project has been the most expansive and ambitious in the history of this African nation, which will celebrate 100 years of internal rule on the same day that President Kenyatta inaugurates the high-speed rail service.
Prior to the SGR, railway development had been a tortuous affair in Kenya. The system built under British rule had pretty much stagnated for decades; the locomotives were ancient and the rickety train cars made for long, creaky rides. The rail system being replaced by the SGR was an amazing feat of British engineering that was once known as “the lunatic line” due to the dangers, obstacles and hardships endured by workers who laid track across the savannah and thick forests, which were home to dangerous lions and malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
In 2012, suburban residents of Nairobi cheerfully celebrated the inauguration of a new train station—the first one in eight decades. This new station and rail service were welcomed by thousands of people who used to commute aboard stuffy matatus, minibuses that create massive gridlock in the populous capital city. More importantly, Kenyans felt that change was coming, and the SGR is proof positive of this change.
A Major and Polemic Infrastructure Project
Development of the SGR comes at the cost of $31 billion, part of which is being financed by the government through a series of loan agreements with the People’s Republic of China.
It is important to note that China is playing more than just a financial role in the future of Kenya’s railway system. Some of the loans granted by the PRC are of a concessionary nature, and Chinese engineers have actively participated in the SGR project. The second phase of the project will connect Nairobi to other cities such as Naivasha and Kisumu, and a maritime terminal will be developed in the latter region. Financing of the entire second phase will be provided by China.
As can expected, some Kenyans are unhappy about the significant role that China is taking in this African nation. Fears about a future “takeover” by the PRC have been discussed in social media circles; speculations even include the idea of China building a naval base in Mombasa should the government default on the loan. Such fears are mostly xenophobic in nature, and they are usually made by those who do not understand how international financing agreements work. However, should Kenya fail to make payments or fall into a default situation with China, the national economy could most certainly suffer.
In other polemic news related to the SGR project ahead of its inauguration, four suspects were arrested in connection with an investigation on acts of vandalism and theft of building materials along the railway. Keriako Tobiko, Director of Public Prosecutions, explained that railway vandalism will be treated as sabotage perpetrated by organized crime groups. In addition, officials from the National Land Commission are expected to be questioned by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission with regard to alleged graft associated with compulsory purchase of land for the project.
The SGR Future
After President Kenyatta and other officials complete the SGR maiden ride, Kenyans will be able to hop aboard for the reasonable ticket price of 900 shillings for economy class seats on a trip between Nairobi and Mombasa. First class seats, highly recommended for tourists and those who want to travel in comfort, will cost less than $30.
Aside from the positive impact to the tourism and public transportation sectors, the SGR will also reduce costs of transporting goods and raw materials across the populous southern region of Kenya. Exporters, particularly China, will have more incentives to ship goods to African nations where consumer economies are growing; such is the case with Kenya.
In the end, the first day of June in 2017 will likely be remembered as a defining moment in the economic history of Kenya. It should be noted that the project was completed more than a year ahead of schedule; this is further proof that greatness is something that Kenya is certainly capable of.