Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on Wednesday inaugurated a Chinese-built railway, the country’s biggest infrastructure project since independence that is aimed at cementing its role as the gateway to East Africa.
Dancers and a military band entertained passengers and dignitaries from Kenya and China shortly before they, and Kenyatta, were to take the maiden journey from a gleaming new terminal in the port city of Mombasa to Nairobi.
The five-hour journey will take less than half the time to drive between the two cities, a hair-raising trip on a one-lane highway clogged with lumbering trucks and where accidents claim dozens of lives each year.
“Today we celebrate one of the key cornerstones to Kenya’s transformation to an industrialised, prosperous, middle-income country,” Kenyatta said at the launch.
The passenger train, dubbed the Madaraka (Freedom) Express, can carry 1,260 passengers, and replaces the so-called “Lunatic Express” — a railway built more than a century ago by colonial Britain which was known for lengthy delays and breakdowns.
“This is the best thing that has happened to our country, I am happy to witness it and be part of the first passengers on the first train,” said Rahab Wangui before the train set off.
Kenyatta on Tuesday flagged off the first cargo train, set to cut the cost and time involved in transporting goods to the capital.
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.
The $3.2 billion (2.8 billion euro) railway project is financed 90 percent by China’s Export-Import Bank, while the Kenyan government is providing the remaining 10 percent.
The new railway has courted controversy, with accusations of corruption dogging construction, concerns over the impact on wildlife and the eventual tax burden on Kenyans.
Transport Minister James Macharia said the government expects the railway to boost GDP by 1.5 percent, allowing them to pay back the loan “in about four years”.
“I think that is a little bit of wishful thinking,” said economist Kwame Owino, questioning assumptions about the volume of cargo available to be carried, while warning high growth rates in east Africa were beginning to moderate.
The railway will be managed by the Chinese contractor for five years, with 610 Chinese workers in charge, while Kenyans are trained to take over.
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