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Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Chinese envoy Wang Yong launch a new rail freight service in Nairobi on Tuesday. Photo: Xinhua

Railway to nowhere? Kenya launches cargo services on China-funded line

  • Freight transport gets under way on billion-dollar rail extension from Nairobi to Rift Valley
  • President hits back at critics questioning viability of project
Kenya has launched freight services on a new billion-dollar extension of a China-funded railway line to the country’s heart, but questions remain over the viability of the project after authorities failed to secure Chinese financing to extend the line to the border with Uganda.

In Nairobi on Tuesday, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta launched cargo operations on the new US$1.5 billion section of the Standard Gauge Railway between the capital and Naivasha, a town in the Rift Valley.

“This will not only help relieve pressure on the Port of Mombasa and the Nairobi Inland Container Depot, but will also take the cargo closer to Uganda and South Sudan by a further 120km (75 miles),” Kenyatta said.

Also at the launch was Chinese President Xi Jinping’s special envoy State Councillor Wang Yong, Chinese ambassador to Kenya Wu Peng and China Communications Construction chairman Liu Qitao.

Wang said Kenya and China were engaged in a mutually beneficial partnership that would work to the advantage of the people of both countries.

The 120km section of rail line was funded by Exim Bank of China and is an extension of the US$3.2 billion line from Mombasa on the coast to Nairobi.

The plan was originally to extend the line further to Malaba on the border with Uganda. But amid accusations of debt-trap diplomacy, Beijing expressed reservations about the financial viability of the upgrade and asked for a new feasibility study to be conducted before it would release any funds.

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Since then, the Kenyan government has decided instead to overhaul the existing British-built metre-gauge railway, which was built more than a century ago and does not allow trains to move as quickly as the standard gauge system.


With further Chinese funding for standard gauge construction in doubt, Uganda said that it too would overhaul its old metre-gauge railway rather than build a new, more efficient line.

On Tuesday, Kenyatta said the Kenyan government was in talks with a private investor to fund the upgrade.

“My administration will soon commence works on the restoration of the metre-gauge railway network as we move towards section 2B of our railway, from Mombasa to Kisumu onwards to Malaba,” he said.

The first freight train to Naivaisha leaves Nairobi on Tuesday. Photo: AFP

Kenyatta also hit back at critics who say the standard gauge sections already in place would not be commercially viable and amounted to a railway to nowhere.

“The commencement of this railway does not mean that because there is nothing now there would be nothing tomorrow,” he said.


With the launch of the line – and an accompanying dry port in Naivasha – importers for cargo destined to the western part of Kenya and neighbouring countries such as Uganda, South Sudan, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo will now pick their cargo from the Naivasha depot.

The depot will be served by two trains a day and already two shipping lines have committed to take their cargo there directly from Mombasa.

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The Mombasa-Nairobi section opened to passenger traffic in 2017 and then to freight last year. While the passenger services have been successful, the uptake of cargo – the key reason for its construction – has been sluggish.

Kenyatta said the line had moved more than 10,000 passengers since 2017, “with demand significantly outstripping our carrying capacity”.

But the line has been used to transport just 6.8 million tonnes of freight – far short of the annual target of 8 million tonnes.

Importers say that even with the government’s various carrots and sticks, trucking remains the cheaper transport option, especially when cargo has to be unloaded and reloaded at an inland depot.