Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

End of the line for 'Lunatic Express?' Kenya begins multi-billion dollar railway

By Stephanie Ott, for CNN
January 6, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
A construction worker walks through the dilapidated rails in Nairobi. Work has just begun on a new standard-gauge line between Nairobi and Mombasa. It's being funded by China, just one of numerous Chinese infrastructure projects in Africa A construction worker walks through the dilapidated rails in Nairobi. Work has just begun on a new standard-gauge line between Nairobi and Mombasa. It's being funded by China, just one of numerous Chinese infrastructure projects in Africa
China's investment in Africa
Lamu Port
Ethiopian industry
Ethiopian railway
Brazzaville port
Dar es Salaam bridge
Tanzania pipeline
Gabon dam
  • China funding $5 billion railway project in Kenya, between Mombasa, Nairobi
  • The railway is planned to be extended to South Sudan, Rwanda and Uganda
  • Kenya is a transit state but its railway dates back to colonial times
  • China investing in infrastructure, manufacturing, oil projects in Africa

(CNN) -- A Chinese-funded railway project in Kenya could transform transport in east Africa, and strengthen cross-border political and economic ties.

Kenya is known as the region's logistics, trade and transport hub. Yet, its railway dates back to the colonial era and the 300-mile (483 kilometer) journey from Mombasa to Nairobi currently takes 12 hours for passengers -- freight trains take up to 36. The railway is old and large parts of the tracks remain unused, while roads are crowded and traffic is slow.

In November 2013, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta laid the foundation stone for the construction of a new standard gauge railway line in Mombasa that will connect the coastal city with the Kenyan capital Nairobi. "The project will define my legacy as president of Kenya," Kenyatta told local media. "What we are doing here today will most definitely transform ... not only Kenya but the whole eastern African region," Kenyatta said.

'Lunatic Express'

The Chinese-financed railway will be as big a game changer as the Lunatic Express was during its time more than a century ago.
Aly-Khan Satchu

The current rail network in Kenya consists of dilapidated British colonial-era lines. The notorious "Lunatic Express" was completed in 1901 and links Kampala in Uganda with the Indian Ocean town of Mombasa. The new line is hoped to cut travel time from Mombasa to Nairobi to four hours for passengers, eight hours for freight trains.

Read more: Tech cities and mega dams: Africa's giant infrastructure projects

"The Chinese-financed railway will be as big a game changer as the Lunatic Express was during its time more than a century ago," said Aly-Khan Satchu, who is a Sub Saharan Africa geopolitical and financial analyst and CEO of the Kenyan financial portal Rich. "Kenya is a transit state and if you want to embed that advantage you need to have a first-class infrastructure."

Planned extent of railway  Planned extent of railway
Planned extent of railwayPlanned extent of railway

The state-owned China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) will build the railway. The Chinese government has funded the first section of the project with $5.2 billion to build the Mombasa to Nairobi section. Work is expected to be completed by 2017.

"The railway development will have the following immediate economic benefits: reduce the cost of transportation in the region making it an attractive investment destination and accelerate industrialization through easier and cheaper transport and the establishment of new industries to service the new railway," said Mr. Zhang, a business manager who oversees the Africa projects at China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), parent company of CRBC.

But the Mombasa-Nairobi section is only the first part of a much larger project. The standard gauge railway is planned to run between Mombasa and Malaba (in west Kenya) and eventually link to other major east African cities, namely Kampala (Uganda), Kigali (Rwanda) and Juba (South Sudan). With this, the Kenyan government is hoping to strengthen ties between those countries.

Read more: World's biggest hydro power project to light up Africa?

Transformations in Kenya

The railway is also expected to reduce congestion at Mombasa Port and direct the traffic flow away from the crowded streets and onto the railway.

It is said to be the largest infrastructure project in the country since Kenya's independence from Great Britain in 1963. The railway is one of the flagship projects in Kenya's "Vision 2030" development program, which aims to transform the economic, political and social state of the country by 2030.

Will the project benefit local people and businesses?

The CCCC argues that the project will contribute to an annual GDP growth of at least 1.5% during construction and subsequent operation and that it will create at least 60 new jobs per kilometer of track during the construction period. "We believe there is a great potential for us to invest in east Africa and (we're) looking forward to further cooperation," Zhang said.

The CCCC claims the construction could create at least 10,000 jobs locally as "large quantities of local inputs such as steel, cement, aggregates, electricity generation and electricity transmission pylons and cables, roofing materials, glass are required from local industries."

However, the unveiling of the project has not been without controversy -- some Kenyan MPs have criticized the tendering process and claimed the project would be a burden on Kenyan taxpayers.

China's growing influence in Africa

China has numerous ongoing projects in Africa, especially in the infrastructure, oil, natural resources, manufacturing and banking sectors.

China's growing influence in Africa
China's investment in Africa

For example, China has agreed to finance a large new port in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, that could involve more than $10 billion and the CCCC is also building parts of a new mega port in Lamu, Kenya. A Chinese shoe company is developing a special economic zone in Ethiopia and a Chinese construction company is building a railway line that connects Kaduna in northern Nigeria with the capital Abuja, for the Nigerian government.

Read more: Economist Dambisa Moyo: China can transform Africa

David Shinn is an adjunct professor of international affairs at the George Washington University, and a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, and has written extensively about China-Africa relations. He argued that China is filling a gap by financing multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects, because Western governments have been largely absent in this area.

"Since the beginning of this century, China has filled a void left by the West but has done so with the idea it will be reimbursed and Chinese companies will turn a profit," he said.

However, the growing influence China holds on the continent has made some apprehensive. "Some African countries are concerned that China may develop a monopoly on these big infrastructure projects and want to ensure that Western countries, India, Turkey and Brazil stay or get engaged," he added.

Of the Mombasa and Nairobi rail line, he said: "The project probably makes good sense assuming that the cost is in line with predicted benefits. It will certainly improve economic integration and will probably have a positive impact on political integration."

Part of complete coverage on
Marketplace Africa
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1100 GMT (1900 HKT)
Fish from the tiny mountain kingdom of Lesotho are served in top Tokyo sushi spots.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 1323 GMT (2123 HKT)
The world-famous waterfall is inspiring a local tourism boom as an increasing number of people is visiting Zimbabwe.
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 1007 GMT (1807 HKT)
Seychelles needed more than pristine beaches and choral reefs to boost its once troubled tourism industry.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
A general view of the Hout Bay harbour covered in mist is seen on May 8, 2010 from the Chapman's peak road on the outskirts of Cape Town. Chapman's peak road is the coastal link between Cape Town and the Cape of Good Hope. When following the African coastline from the equator the Cape of Good Hope marks the psychologically important point where one begins to travel more eastward than southward, thus the first rounding of the cape in 1488 by Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias was a major milestone in the attempts by the Portuguese to establish direct trade relations with the Far East. He called the cape Cabo Tormentoso. As one of the great capes of the South Atlantic Ocean, the Cape of Good Hope has been of special significance to sailors for many years and is widely referred to by them simply as 'the Cape'. It is a major milestone on the clipper route followed by clipper ships to the Far East and Australia, and still followed by several offshore yacht races. AFP PHOTO/GIANLUIGI GUERCIA (Photo credit should read GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Abandoned workshops and empty warehouses are getting a new lease of life in Cape Town.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1037 GMT (1837 HKT)
Inside a glove factory on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, busy laborers turn patches of leather into these fashionable garments.
October 9, 2014 -- Updated 1050 GMT (1850 HKT)
The Somali capital now has its first-ever ATM bank machine -- and it dispenses U.S. dollars.
October 9, 2014 -- Updated 0911 GMT (1711 HKT)
Waves lap at the ships as they pull into the Port of Ngqura, but no swell is stopping the local economy booming.
October 3, 2014 -- Updated 1524 GMT (2324 HKT)
In Uganda, a group of landmine victims are using banana fiber to create rope, profit and community.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1337 GMT (2137 HKT)
What does it mean to be Nigerian? That's the question on the lips of many in Nigeria as new national identity cards are being rolled out.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1105 GMT (1905 HKT)
 General view of an oil offshore platform owned by Total Fina Elf in the surroundings waters of the Angolan coast 15 October 2003. The 11 members of the OPEC oil cartel have agreed to slash output by a million barrels a day, the OPEC president said 11 October 2006, in a move aimed at shoring up sliding world crude prices.
Six of the top 10 global oil and gas discoveries last year were made in Africa -- but can these finds transform the continent?
February 20, 2014 -- Updated 1121 GMT (1921 HKT)
A South African app allows buyers to pay for goods using their phone, without having to worry about carrying cash or credit cards.
December 13, 2013 -- Updated 0027 GMT (0827 HKT)
African astronomers want world-class observatories to inspire young scientists and build a tech economy.
February 19, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
A Zambian computer tablet -- known as the ZEduPad -- is trying to open up the country's information highway.
January 9, 2014 -- Updated 1057 GMT (1857 HKT)
South Africa may be the dominant force in Africa's wine economy, but other countries are making inroads in the industry.
October 10, 2013 -- Updated 0927 GMT (1727 HKT)
Eko Atlantic city design concept
A lack of infrastructure has hindered Africa's development, but a series of megaprojects could change that.
Each week Marketplace Africa covers the continent's macro trends and interviews a major player from the region's business community.