This will be the year of the railway — perhaps mimicking 1899, when the existing railway reached Nairobi.
By then, the railway was colonial Kenya’s most expensive project. Today, the new standard gauge railway is still the country’s most expensive infrastructural project.
A historical transport masterpiece in the region, the project has encountered numerous challenges like her predecessor, the metre gauge line that is more than a century old now.
The resilience that will see the project officially launched six months before the planned timeline is admirable even to its harshest critics.
The Sh327 billion project is set to transform logistics from the rapidly expanding port at the coast to the mainland, with cargo set to take less than a tenth of the time to get to the Ugandan border compared with road transport.
The port, which handled 30 million tonnes of cargo in 2015, with 70 per cent of these being hauled via road to other parts of the country including the capital, where the SGR will have a huge container depot as well as a large, airport-type station at Syokimau.
With six diesel locomotives already dispatched from China and expected in the country next month, the dream of cargo and passenger movement in a relatively modern railway is fast taking shape.
Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia said 56 such locomotives are expected to operate on the line with the goal of transporting at least 40 per cent of the port cargo.
Of the 56 locomotives, 43 will be used to move cargo, five for passengers, while another eight will be used for shunting operations.
The locomotives, manufactured by CRRC Qishuyan, one of the major diesel locomotive manufacturers in China will be capable of carrying up to four times the cargo possible to be hauled by the current metre gauge railway.
This, according to Kenya Railways managing director Atanas Maina, will decongest the port and create even more jobs along the line as cargo moves inland.
DECONGESTING MOMBASA PORT
“Kenyans are looking forward to the completion of this project, given the benefits we expect to reap from it. We expect decongestion of the port of Mombasa, better efficiency in rail operations, reduction in transport costs, reduction of incidents and accidents occasioned by heavy trucks and trailers on Kenyan roads, reduced transit times for goods, better connectivity to regions and, ultimately, a desired improvement in the overall transport sector in Kenya,” Mr Maina said.
The ongoing civil works for the first phase of the single-track standard gauge railway between Mombasa and Nairobi is said to be 98 per cent complete, but not with its own share of challenges.
The 472km stretch of the line will run through Mombasa, Kilifi, Kwale, Taita-Taveta, Makueni, Kajiado, Machakos and Nairobi counties.
Local suppliers who had angled to gain from the massive project missed the deal when the contractor challenged the quality of local cement and steel as the materials were shipped in huge quantities from China.
Their targeted 40 per cent of supplies was reduced to less than 25 per cent as they struggled to meet the new standards they had not been made aware of in the initial stage.
The contractor who is delivering the coaches and wagons and who will also serve as the SGR operator for the first five years, has been criticised for reaping more than triple the benefits as some critics claimed many manual labourers were also brought in from China.
This, together with hurdles of land compensation, has been a huge headache for the line launched about three years ago and is likely to be experienced in the longer stretch to Malaba in the second phase.
At one point, residents attacked the Chinese workers, accusing them of taking all jobs and leaving them to be observers.
“One would have expected even more hurdles given the magnitude of the project but it is good to know that now we are not far from completing the first phase and the benefits will be evident as soon as possible,” Mr Macharia said in an earlier interview.
A flagship project under the Kenya Vision 2030 development agenda, the project's economic benefits are anticipated to go across the borders after a tripartite agreement was signed by the governments of Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda in August 2013 to fast-track the development of the railway to their respective capital cities.
Although the first phase is set to run parallel to the existing meter gauge railway and the Mombasa-Nairobi road, or the A109 highway, for the most part, the second phase will most likely create new urban centres as the first line did in the precolonial years.
With the design set to have state-of-the-art passenger stations in Mombasa and Nairobi as well as five other intermediate stations in Mariakani, Voi, Mtito Andei, Sultan Hamud and Athi River, the readiness to handle the possible 1,380 passengers per trip is a massive business opportunity in those areas.
A total of 40 stations are planned to be built along the line, 33 of which will be ready when the railway becomes operational.
Kenya’s new rail will now be slightly above the Abuja-Kaduna line, one of the first standard gauge railway modernisation projects undertaken in Nigeria.
The SGR journey in Kenya has been long, starting back in 2008, when the Cabinet approved the project as a government-to-government financed project.
A year later, on August 12, 2009, the then ministry of Transport and China Road and Bridge Corporation, a state-owned Chinese company, signed a memorandum of understanding for the latter to undertake a feasibility study and preliminary designs on phase 1 of the railway.
As the first phase comes to a close in June, many lessons will have been learnt as well.
The government says the Chinese builder has been contractually obliged to set aside at least 40 per cent of supplies to the locals.
That means locals will share Sh153 billion for the project, a great stride in dispersing its economic benefits.