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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Mombasa - Nairobi 'lunatic express' to be revived - this time by China

Mombasa is the second-largest city in Kenya.  Located in the eastcoast of Kenya, it  has a large port and an international airport, and is an important regional tourism centre.  Approx 5oo km away, is Nairobi, the capital and largest city of Kenya.  The name  "Nairobi" comes from the Maasai phrase Enkare Nairobi, which translates to "cool water".  Nairobi was founded in 1899 by the colonial authorities in British East Africa, as a rail depot on the Uganda Railway.   A109 road is the main road link between Nairobi and Mombasa running around 470 km.  The road running adjacent to Ugandan Railway is  regarded as one of the most dangerous roads in the country due to the many hundreds of road deaths that have occurred in the last few years.

More than a century ago, British engineers and their African and Indian labourers spent five years carving a railway through what would become Kenya in a bid to open up East Africa's interior. Along the way, close to 2,500 workers died, struck down by malaria, attacked by lions or overcome by exhaustion. Winston Churchill, who later shot zebras from the train, called it “one of the finest expositions of the British art of muddling through”.  By the time the 660-mile track reached the shores of Lake Victoria from Mombasa in 1901, the massively over-budget endeavour had been nicknamed “the lunatic express”.

Construction of the original line began in Mombasa 1895 and the railway reached Nairobi in 1899. By December 1901, it had reached the shore of Lake Victoria;  building the line proved no easy task for the British. The aim then was to create a route linking Mombasa to Uganda, the source of the Nile and to open up Africa's 'interior'.  But huge costs - both financial and in human life - drew strong opposition and the project soon became known as the 'Lunatic Line'.

Now comes the news that  it is to be built all over again —  this time by China. A new standard gauge track will be constructed from Kenya’s coast on the Indian Ocean to its western border with Uganda. President Uhuru Kenyatta has struck a £3.2 billion deal with Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart.  The Chinese funding includes an array of projects, including new hydro-electric dams and the expansion of Kenya’s ports, but the railway is expected to swallow most of the money. Its British-built predecessor was rendered almost derelict by decades of state-sponsored looting of Kenya Railways, forcing almost all freight on to clogged and potholed roads.  Of the 1,700 miles of track that were operational under British rule in the Fifties, no more than 700 are used today. Trains rarely go faster than 20mph even on the best maintained sections.

China’s new engagement with Africa was “very similar to the British engagement in the past: railways, roads, bridges, major infrastructure”, said Aly-Khan Satchu, a Kenyan economist. Today, big construction projects have fallen out of favour with Western donors. Meanwhile, Mr Kenyatta is due to stand trial before the International Criminal Court in November for alleged crimes against humanity. All this has strained Kenya’s relations with traditional allies – Britain has nothing but “essential” contact with Mr Kenyatta – and China has quickly stepped into the breach. Chinese car manufacturers and television stations all operate in Kenya. An English edition of China Daily is printed in the capital, Nairobi.

Few doubt that new railways would help Kenya to sustain its economic growth, already running at a healthy annual rate of 5 per cent. A new rail link could knock 79 per cent off the cost of shifting freight across East Africa, according to the government. But critics point out that trade between China and Kenya is almost entirely one-way. Kenya’s exports to China totalled only £32million last year, compared with imports of £1.2billion. Some worry that Mr Kenyatta’s tilt away from the West could alienate traditional allies and place all of Kenya’s eggs in the Chinese basket.

The lunatic line, branded by Winston Churchill as 'one of the finest expositions of the British art of muddling through’ is all set to chugh again, this time funded by China.  The £3.8billion project will run from Nairobi to Mombasa and eventually link to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan. Under the agreement,  China will finance 90 per cent of the railway while the Kenyan government will foot the rest.   Construction work on the standard gauge line is expected to start in October this year, and the 610 km (380-mile) stretch from the coast to Nairobi is due to be finished in early 2018.

The deal was signed at State House in Nairobi and witnessed by presidents Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Salva Kiir of South Sudan as well as Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang.

Any reference to the railway would be incomplete without reference to ‘Tsavo Man-Eaters,  the most notorious lions in history who terrorised the British-led team of railway-bridge builders at Kenya's  Tsavo river in 1898. Over a nine-month reign of terror, the two maneless male lions would sneak into the labourers' camp in the dead of night and snatch men from their tents, devouring them on site. A separate post follows on that ………….

With regards – S. Sampathkumar

16th Apr 2015.
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