Kenya has awarded the China Roads and Bridges Company the tender to kick-start the upgrade of its railway line to standard gauge at a cost of Sh1.2 trillion. The Standard Gauge Railway Construction project involves erecting a 485km rail track from Mombasa to Nairobi. This is in line with the intended adoption of the standard railways network for the wider East African region.


The different governments in the region have decided to migrate from the current metre gauge to the standard gauge railway line through the addition of an extra track on the current line. This will lead to the capacity to have more freight tonnage and increase in the speeds of the railways.

China Roads and Bridges Company has ‘secretly’ signed the commercial contract with the Kenya Railways Corporation, under an agreement that commits the state corporation to deal only with the Chinese company.

The new railway line, which will be completed in five years, will carry freight trains at speeds of up to 80km/hr and passenger trains at up to 120km/hr.

The viability of the railway line that will be built according to the Chinese railway designs is based on the assumption that it will be part of a seamless system linking Kenya and Uganda as well serving landlocked Burundi and Rwanda.

The new deal is likely to upset the current infrastructure agreements with Kenya’s neighbors, particularly the existing concession agreement with Rift Valley Railway (RVA) in both Kenya and Uganda.

Standard gauge

It is called a standard gauge because it is the accepted standard for most railway tracks in the world. 85 per cent of all railways in the world use the standard gauge system.

The current railway does not perform because it is narrower than the standard gauge, at 1,000mm against standard gauge’s 1,435, it also has a steeper gradient.

The current metre system will cost more if retained or just retouched. During its construction the gradient of ascent from Mombasa to Nairobi was high at two per cent against the ideal gradient of a maximum one per cent. Because of this gradient, the amount of load the railway can carry is restricted. So, even if we put a standard gauge on the same alignment, with the same gradient, we shall still be limited on load. And if we want to increase the load, we have to add locomotives and this is an extra cost. The gradient also slows down the locomotive.

It is also worth noting that a diesel locomotive running on metre gauge costs $3 million while a locomotive that runs on standard gauge costs $1 million.

The old line should be removed in order to embrace new technologies in the railway construction. There are new ways to deal with the obstacles that will reduce the relentless windings, bends and gradient that are common in the current railways and which reduces the speeds achievable by the trains.

Cargo volumes to and from Mombasa are projected to reach 32 million tonnes in the next 10-15 years. Commuter transport should also be improved and the passenger numbers is set to increase.

Trains currently running at 40kph could never handle that tonnage. The new build line with a design speed of 89kph for cargo and 120kph for passengers is what we need.

Open access

The new plan is that the Chinese built railway will be operated under an arrangement known as ‘open access,’ where multiple operators will be allowed to operate freight businesses on the standard gauge railway system in competition with RVR. This may harm RVR but it will be beneficial for the railways system as it will encourage others to invest in the rolling stock and it will also bring in competition which is likely to stimulate better service delivery.

Beijing-Nairobi connect

After attempting to float the tender for the standard gauge locally and failing. The Kenyan government resorted to a government to government arrangement which landed the China Railways and Bridges Corporation the tender. The current railway system was a handiwork of the Indians under the supervision of the Britons a hundred years ago. Fast forward the Chinese are doing our railways showing that the Kenya still lacks the capacity to build her own. It is the same company that will do the work that did the feasibility study.

Enter the Kenyan politicians, excite the intrigues

Last month, Maina Kamanda the Starehe MP and seven members of the Parliamentary committee on Transport, which he chairs, visited Beijing where they met top Chinese officials over the railway tender, days before the launch.

“We were in China and we met various Chinese officials, including their minister for Transport, who told us that the China Railways and Bridges Corporation was equal to the task,” Mr Kamanda said.

On Monday this week, President Kenyatta rebuked some businessmen, whom he accused of funding MPs to support their tender interests.

“We know their tricks. They want to corruptly get contracts and when they lose, they buy MPs to make noise. I want to ask these MPs to earn their living in the right away,” he said.

And his deputy, Mr William Ruto, said: “If you have lost business or a tender please don’t bring your frustrations to us.”

On Tuesday, Nandi Hills MP Alfred Keter, who has caused a storm in the Rift Valley by openly criticizing the President and his deputy over the railway tender, denied he was speaking for brokers.

“I have raised pertinent questions on this project. I have said there is overcharging and that Kenya is going to lose Sh400 billion.

Different media houses have varied and conflicting reports on the nature of the goings in the procurement process undertaken in the effort to implement the standard gauge railway network.

It is the deep desire of Kenyans that these allegations of corruption be investigated and if any wrong transpired it should be corrected.

This is a monumental project that will spur the economy of Kenya by leaps and bounds

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