On board Kenya’s Madaraka Express

I recently had the pleasure of riding the Madaraka Express—a Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) project that connects Nairobi to the port city of Mombasa.

It gave me a first-hand experience of how a Chinese “mega project” works, and how it is being financed, maintained and expanded to other parts of Kenya.

The Nairobi terminus, where I began my journey, is a shiny new building located 23 kilometres from the city centre. It offers modern facilities and is equipped with touch-screens that enable you to print your pre-purchased tickets, which, when scanned, then allow you to enter the platform.

Security is tight and after at least four checkpoints, I finally boarded the impressive carriage where two smartly clad attendants directed me to my pre-assigned seat. The ride itself was smooth and, as the train left the station, we were treated to the majestic scenery of Nairobi National Park.

The seats were comfortable, with easy access to power outlets and the bathrooms were clean and well-maintained. Food and drinks were available for purchase onboard and the service from the train attendants was impeccable.

This train could have been in service anywhere in the world, but given the high demand and need for infrastructural development on the African continent, Kenya’s SGR project appears particularly impressive and timely.

Almost everyone I spoke to in Kenya, including passengers, political observers, students, journalists and fellow academics, highlighted the numerous benefits of this new railway service—drastic reduction in travel time, relatively inexpensive fares, pleasant travel in air-conditioned comfort, reduction in road accidents on the treacherous road between the two cities, new jobs and a sense of national pride.

But this landmark project, built by a Chinese firm at an estimated cost of $3.6 billion, has also received its share of criticism. Many Kenyans have questioned their government’s ability to repay the huge loans, particularly since preliminary reports have found that revenue from cargo and sale of passenger tickets has been far less than anticipated.

Others have demanded greater transparency on how the loans were negotiated and the exact conditions attached—information that the government is yet to make public. In recent months, the Kenyan media has also reported on how contracts for the project were awarded to politically well-connected individuals and their companies, and several individuals I spoke to claimed that this enormously expensive project has fattened the wallets of influential politicians and their supporters.

Kenya is now expanding the SGR network to other parts of the country, and only time will tell whether this ambitious project will be an economic success. What is indisputable is that Kenya offers numerous lessons to other African countries seeking to undertake major investments aimed at improving their infrastructure.

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