Questions raised over the viability of new Nairobi to Mombasa rail line

Ongoing construction works of the standard gauge railway in Voi on March 15. PHOTO | FILE
Ongoing construction works of the standard gauge railway in Voi on March 15. PHOTO | FILE 

Kenya is about to get a ‘‘third-rate railway for the cost of a very expensive one,’’ according to a report in the Economist magazine on the new Nairobi to Mombasa rail line.

Questions also remain, according to the London-based magazine, on how the railway will be paid for and who exactly is going to run it.

The new track is costing Kenya about $4 billion (Sh404 billion), mostly funded by a loan from the Chinese ExIm bank, and construction is due to be completed next year.

But the report says that “although only a year remains before completion, not only are tariffs and rates undecided, but it is not even clear who will run the railway.

Kenyan officials have apparently taken to skipping trade conferences of late to avoid answering questions.

“Could this be because the new railway is a dud investment? Its fastest trains will do a fairly mediocre 80kph. Much as with the old railway, parts of the new line will be single-track, forcing trains to stop, often for hours, to let others pass. Most absurdly, it is built to a lower standard of load-bearing than most other new freight railways.”

The Economist also quotes consultants, including Pierre Pozzo di Borgo of the International Finance Corporation wing of the World Bank, who says that rehabilitating the older line might have cost just five per cent as much as building a new one.

Transport experts have also questioned whether it will be possible to load four full containers onto each wagon, as is done on other new lines.

The magazine notes that “repaying the loans taken out to build the line will require hefty fees or huge volumes of traffic.” 

It notes however that truckers—who now handle more than 95 per cent of the freight moved from Mombasa port—“will compete fiercely on price, and shipping companies may look for other ports if levies rise.”