President tells launch ceremony that railway line linking port city to neighbouring nations is a “historic milestone”.
Amid concerns of its high price tag, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has inaugurated a Chinese-built railway, the country’s biggest infrastructure project since its independence.
The red-and-white diesel train left from the port city of Mombasa on Wednesday on its journey to Nairobi, carrying Kenyatta, Chinese dignitaries and citizens from around the country.
“Today we celebrate one of the key cornerstones to Kenya’s transformation to an industrialised, prosperous, middle-income country,” Kenyatta said at the inauguration ceremony.
The five-hour journey on what is being called the Madarake Express, or “Freedom Express”, will take half the time it takes to drive between the two cities.
Al Jazeera’s Catherine Soi, reporting from Mombasa, said many see the train as a “historic” moment for Kenya.
“This is a huge milestone and everyone who has witnessed the inaugural ceremonies are very proud, saying it’s an historic event,” Soi said.
The new railway will replace what was dubbed the “Lunatic Express”, the railway built more than a century ago by colonial Britain – known for its lengthy delays and breakdowns, as well as its high costs.
“The difference between this railway and the old one is affordability and the capacity of the trains to carry more load and passengers, as well as its speed,” Soi said.
Wagari Ngunyi, a passenger of the new train, told Al Jazeera that it “is comfortable and it’s very smooth”.
Al Jazeera’s Soi said that the while “efficiency of the train is not in dispute, many people are worried about the economics of its construction”.
Accusations of corruption, concerns over the impact on wildlife, and a $3.2bn price tag blamed on poor negotiations with the Chinese have dogged the project.
Economist Kwame Owino told Al Jazeera that “Kenya’s railway costs [per kilometre] are almost 40 to 50 percent higher” than some of Kenya’s neighbouring countries.
“It’s an extremely expensive piece of railway, especially because the technology is more up to date,” Owino said.
Transport Minister James Macharia said, however, that the government expects the railway to boost GDP by 1.5 percent, allowing them to pay back its loan from the Chinese “in about four years”.
Joseph Keiyah, of Kenya’s Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis, told Al Jazeera that while the project is expensive, it has many benefits for the country.
“I think what Kenya is trying to do in a nutshell is to reposition itself as the strategic gateway to East Africa.”
The railway is 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.
Al Jazeera’s Soi said another concern regarding the railway is the growing Chinese influence in the country.
“The Chinese government seems to be calling the shots, and that is concerning many people,” Soi said.
China’s Export-Import Bank financed 90 percent of the railway’s first leg, while the Kenyan government provided the remaining 10 percent.