There can be few better ways to see a country than from a train window. And few railways have a story like the Mombasa-Nairobi line in Kenya. First constructed it 1896 as part of the Ugandan Railway, Churchill called it ‘one of the most wonderful railways in the world’ whereas the Liberal MP Henry Labouchère saw it as an expensive vanity project, famously labelling it the ‘lunatic line’ (one can only imagine what he would have thought of HS2).
122 years later the new Chinese-built Nairobi-Mombasa Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) is causing similar controversy. Arriving at the Nairobi Terminus it was clear that little expense has been spared. The large shiny building sits incongruously on the outskirts of the city. A large queue has formed for the first of many security checks.
Quite why the security is so strict remains a mystery throughout our journey. Our bags are sniffed by dogs and scanned twice, we are repeatedly patted down by enthusiastic officials and our tickets are checked no fewer than five times. Kenya is no stranger to terrorist attacks and has suffered several in recent years, but this level of scrutiny exceeds anything I have seen at airports or government buildings.
When an official confiscates my bottle of gin, I begrudgingly assume it is because alcohol is prohibited, which would make sense given that earlier in the month a drunk policeman fired his gun on the train. However, it then transpires that one can buy whisky platform-side by the litre. As with Kenya’s prohibition of plastic bags it seems the more bizarre the law the stricter its enforcement. On the plus side one suspects that the Kenya Railway Corporation (KRC) is able to throw good staff parties.
Eventually we reach the platform where ersatz colours, bright sunlight and spotless tidiness lend the surreal feel of a Wes Anderson film. A conductor, immaculately dressed in a crisp white shirt with a patriotic red, green and black tie clipped neatly in place, conducts a final unnecessary ticket check. Inside, the compartment is modern and clean – we are travelling second-class, but this is definitely more Basel than Bangalore.
The journey from the capital to Kenya’s second city is just under five hours, generous for a route of less than 500km. It is, however, much faster than its predecessor which, after decades of neglect after Independence, could take up to 24 hours to reach the coast and, unsurprisingly saw declining demand.
In 2011, with the original colonial line barely in use, the Kenyan government signed an agreement with the Chinese to build a new railway. Six years later the first public service ran on 1st June, Madaraka Day, a date which commemorates Kenya’s independence as a country; the symbolism is no coincidence, ‘The Madaraka Express’ is designed to be the face of modern Kenya.
Our compartment is filled with excited families on their way to the coast. ‘The train means we can go on holiday each year,’ a middle-aged man explains to me. ‘I once took the bus it is too too long and flying is expensive’. At KES 1000 ($10) the journey is well within the reach of Kenya’s expanding urban middle class and a fraction of the cost of a seat on one of the famously inefficient local airlines. As the journey proceeds, we realise that train travel has an additional benefit for parents: children can run riot, and they do.
Domestic tourism has been a major driver behind the unexpected popularity of the service amongst passengers – more than two million in the first 17 months. Tickets can sell out weeks in advance and over the holiday season additional carriages have been put on.
For commercial freight it has been a different story. The main economic justification of the line was to move goods from the busy Mombasa port to markets inland. Transporting containers in East Africa is notoriously expensive – the final leg of the journey by road to Uganda or Rwanda usually costs more than from almost anywhere in the world to Mombasa. An efficient rail service could be transformational.
Although the SGR has the potential to transport as much as 40 per cent of all Mombasa’s cargo, volumes to-date have been a small fraction of that. Opinion is divided on the reasons for this under-utilisation: transporters criticise the line as being unreliable and bureaucratic but many suspect that powerful haulage cartels and vested interests from the array of middle-men play a role in the resistance.
In either case the implications are significant. At $3.6bn this is Kenya’s most expensive infrastructure project. On the journey I read Michela Wrong’s Our Turn to Eat, providing a good overview of the murky history of Kenyan government contracting. So, it came as little surprise that corruption, particularly in the land acquisition process, has been blamed for much of the overspend.
Repayments to China’s Exim Bank, who provided 90 per cent of the funding, will begin in 2019-20 and already there are concerns about the government’s ability to meet those liabilities. In December 2018 it was reported that, if KRC defaults, China could take ownership of Mombasa Port – a strategically significant asset and a symbol of sovereignty.
The original colonial railway was similarly a gamble on whether there would be enough freight volume to justify the cost. To stimulate demand the British Foreign Office encouraged settlers to farm the corridor of land along the route all the way to the fertile fields of Uganda. In the words of Sir Charles Eliot, commissioner from 1900-1904, ‘It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, but it is uncommon for a railway to create a country.’ Ultimately it paid off and Nairobi, then a mere depot on the line, is now a booming city of four million people.
From the carriage window we see all sides of Kenyan present-day agriculture: large commercial farms with storage silos and smart tractors, the neatly cropped patches of smallholders with women tilling the soil and small boys herding cattle many times their size.
The heavy work of cutting through wild country for the Ugandan Railway was done almost exclusively by imported Indian labour, contributing to a wave of migration across the Indian Ocean that initially provided an administrative class but today dominates much of East Africa’s trading and business. The evidence of the modern SGR’s manufacturer is more subtle – a small reg flag alongside the larger Kenyan one, occasional snippets of Chinese lettering here and there and a few Chinese workers alongside the line.
As we enter the Tsavo Nature Reserve the view from the window offers an insight into Kenya’s wilder side. There can be few trains in the world from which one can see elephant, zebra and giraffe and it is a thrilling experience, particularly for the now ecstatic children. It was here that a pair of infamous lions – the Tsavo man-eaters – are said to have devoured as many as a hundred hapless Indian workers, before finally being shot.
After a spectacular sunset, enjoyed with a Tusker beer in hand, the train rolls into Mombasa Terminus. Two minutes ahead of schedule, many British commuters would be envious of this sort of punctuality. We leave the calm and order of the station to be embraced by the more familiar chaotic bustle of a crowd of taxi hawkers.
In 1900 the railway was an ambitious investment that framed much of the Kenya’s 20th century history. The sleek new SGR meanwhile offers a snapshot of what a modern 21st century Kenya might look like. But it is also an ominous symbol of the debts that the country is racking-up and the risks that corruption and cartels pose to its economic future. It would be a cruel irony if a line named to celebrate and symbolise Kenyan independence ended up being paid for in sovereignty.