Thursday, 1 June 2017

KENYA: Madaraka Express Railway Launched, Cost $3.2 Billion

More than a century after a colonial railway gave birth to modern Kenya, the country has 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 this reporter.

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 eaten some 135 men.

The train was later dubbed the Lunatic Express.

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.

We should ask: Why did you negotiate this badly? said Kwame Owino, head of the Nairobi-based Institute of Economic Affairs.
He points to similar Chinese-built railways in Ethiopia, Tanzania and elsewhere on the continent which cost much less per kilometre.

Macharia dismisses this argument, saying Kenya's SGR could carry more cargo, and passes through trickier terrain.

He 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 Owino, questioning assumptions about the volume of cargo available to be carried, while warning high growth rates in east Africa were beginning to moderate.

He said the government, whose debt has doubled in three years, would be forced to raise taxes to cover the bill.
My feeling as an economist is that it is going to be a white elephant, but as a taxpayer I hope not,said Owino.

Trucks currently take two days to carry goods from Mombasa to Nairobi, while the train will take eight hours. Passenger trains will take around five hours.

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.

The railway has also concerned environmentalists, as it cuts through a key wildlife migration route.

Ben Okita of Save The Elephants said that while underpasses have been built to allow elephants to cross, the creation of an embankment and fencing around the new railway was creating deadly confusion.

Previously one or two elephants were killed annually, but since 2016, 10 elephants have been hit on the old route.

They are used to crossing the old line and then they get to the new railway line and they find the fence and they get confused, in the process they are hit by a train, said Okita.

The next leg of the SGR, to connect Nairobi with the Rift Valley town of Naivasha at a cost of $1.5 billion has also caused a furore as it will cut through the capital's iconic national park.

The government is currently negotiating the financing to link Naivasha to Kisumu near the Ugandan border, which Macharia says is expected to cost another $3.5 billion.

President Uhuru Kenyatta last evening officially opened the Nairobi SGR station at Syokimau, with a vow to connect the line to other countries.

In his speech, he said the railway line is only a piece of the jigsaw for an integrated Africa.

We Kenyans will prosper alongside our neighbours, and peace and stability will be one of the fruits we shall reap together, he said.

I believe that Kenya’s geographic, economic and political position makes us destined to economically connect Africa to the rest of the world, and especially to the peoples and economies of the Indian Ocean Rim.

Our new railway will play an immense role. Some of the world’s largest cities, companies and populations are on the Indian Ocean Rim. Our location is strategic, he said.

President Kenyatta said he hopes there will be continuity of infrastructure projects regardless of who wins in the next elections.

In a press conference aboard the Madaraka Express train from Mombasa, the President said all projects under Vision 2030 must be completed regardless of changes in government.

It is my strong belief that administrations come and go. Governments are permanent and so we have a responsibility as leaders and even those who come after us to follow through because all these projects are all envisioned in Vision 2030 and they belong to Kenyans, he told journalists in a coach.

Whoever is in power has to ensure that public resources are utilised for projects that are ultimately completed for the benefit of Kenyans, he added.

The President was responding to questions about the completion of projects he started when he took power but which have been criticised by the Opposition who argued they have left the country indebted.

They signed a loan worth Sh327 billion to build the Standard Gauge Railway from China. The railway had been conceived during the Grand Coalition Government of Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga. They also signed loans from Japan to expand the Port of Mombasa and borrowed more to construct roads.

Kenya is due to hold elections this August and the fear is that a new administration under a different party or coalition could abandon them altogether.

The President, who was riding the inaugural train journey on the new railway, though, argued his administration was following through a vision established years ago when he was not in power.

When we took over in 2013, there are no projects that we stopped. We actually focused ourselves first to finish the projects that had been initiated or were in various stages of completion by the previous administration, he said.

We only started our programmes once we had completed those. That is why we are now at the tail end. And actually delayed in some of the projects we had wanted to start, he said.

The President was riding with his Deputy William Ruto, cabinet secretaries, senior government officials, African diplomats and Chinese officials.

During his many stops, the President announced lowered fares for economy class from Sh900 to Sh700 between Nairobi and Mombasa. Kenyans can buy tickets from any train station.

National Super Alliance presidential flag bearer Raila Odinga has said he would prosecute people who inflated the cost of the standard gauge railway if he forms the next government.

Mr Odinga said the project cost Ksh227 billion but was inflated to Ksh327 billion by the Jubilee administration.

We know the people responsible and it is not the Chinese, he told a press conference at Orange House.

Mr Odinga, however, said the railway would contribute to the economic growth of the country.

We are happy it is happening. We want to thank the Chinese Government for working with us to make this dream a reality, he said.

Opposition leader hit out at President Kenyatta and Mombasa County Directorate of Criminal Investigations head Washington Muthee for blocking Governor Hassan Ali Joho from attending the launch of the standard gauge railway.

This is a national project. Joho is leading one of the 47 county governments. The project was launched in his county and he should have been there, Mr Odinga said.

He is the one who should have welcomed the President to do the launch.

He also blamed Mr Kenyatta for using the launch of the project to campaign.

At the same time, Mr Odinga said this year’s elections would be a bigger tsunami than what the country witnessed in 2002 when the National Rainbow Coalition ended Kanu’s long rein.

We will walk with everyone and we urge Kenyans to join Nasa, said Mr Odinga while receiving a delegation of politicians from Nakuru, led by former county TNA chairman Peter Njuguna, who defected to the opposition.

Mr Odinga said he supported President Kenyatta’s stand on action to be taken against railway vandals.

During the launch, Mr Kenyatta said he would sign execution orders for vandal as he equated the railway destruct on to economic sabotage.

Mr Odinga said the project was a big step towards Kenya’s economic freedom.

Anyone who attempts vandalise the railway is foolish, Mr Odinga said.

He, however, called for legal procedures and the Constitution to be followed when punishing offenders.

We do not want to return to the days when people were detained without trial, the opposition leader said.