The Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) megaproject is one of the largest of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa, and Kenya’s most ambitious infrastructure megaproject to date. It includes construction of 700 km of standard-gauge track, 33 stations, and dozens of wagons and locomotives. Just like its huge cost pegged at $4.99 billion, so are the expectations that it will transform transport in East Africa and strengthen cross-border political and economic ties.

The first phase of the megaproject; the Nairobi-Mombasa segment that kicked off in November 2013 is expected to be complete in 2017 and will create about 30,000 jobs. The new line is hoped to cut travel time from Mombasa to Nairobi to four hours for passengers, eight hours for freight trains significantly reducing travel time between the two cities from the current 15 hours to four and making a considerable impact on transport activities. “The benefits are so huge. Kenya is the entry point for three landlocked countries, and what happens here directly affects those countries. This will create efficient regional links, improve business within the EAC and foster strong multilateral relationships,” says Felipe Mainga, research and planning manager at the Kenya Railways Corporation (KRC).

Kenya is East Africa’s logistics, trade and transport hub yet its current rail network consists of dilapidated British colonial-era lines, one of the blames to the sluggish transit. The railway is old, and large parts of the tracks remain unused, while roads are crowded and traffic is slow. The notorious “Lunatic Express” was completed in 1901 and links Kampala in Uganda with the Indian Ocean town of Mombasa.

‘Coalition of the Willing’ Partnership

The railway is one of the flagship projects in Kenya’s economic blueprint ‘Vision 2030’, which aims to transform the economic, political and social state of the country by 2030. The first section of the project has been funded by the Chinese government to the tune of $5.2 billion to build the Mombasa to Nairobi line set to be operational by 2017. But, this is only the first part of a much larger project. The standard gauge railway is planned to run between Mombasa and Malaba and eventually link to other major East African cities; Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda. With this, the Kenyan government is hoping to strengthen economic ties between these countries, in what is billed as East Africa’s “coalition of the willing.” As an example, it will reduce the cost of transportation in the region making it an attractive investment destination and accelerate industrialisation through easier, cheaper transport, and establish new industries. The project will also contribute to an annual GDP growth of at least 1.5%, andcould create at least 10,000 jobs locally as large quantities of local inputs such as steel, cement, electricity generation and transmission pylons and cables, roofing materials, glass are required from local industries.

Megaprojects: challenges and controversy

Despite the fanfare, there have been recent cracks in the Coalition of the Willing partnership, as both Uganda and Rwanda seem to have abandoned plans for the extension of the flagship infrastructure project into their own countries. Rwanda, in particular calculates that a partnership with Tanzania, to access the Indian ocean, would be more economically viable and sustainable.  Kenya sees an efficient railway link from Mombasa as a sure way of reducing congestion and outcompeting the Port of Dar-es-Salaam in the race to control cargo destined to Rwanda, Burundi, the DRC and South Sudan. Although the EAC desperately needs more and better infrastructure, the economic viability of some of the proposed investments has been questioned, given the enormous costs involved and possible cheaper and less risky alternatives in rehabilitation and upgrading existing facilities.

As the controversies will rage on, there is no doubt that increased investment in transport and other infrastructural megaprojects will improve the competitiveness of East Africa.