MOMBASA, Kenya – Kenya's president on Tuesday opened the country's largest infrastructure project since independence, a Chinese-backed railway costing nearly $3.3 billion that eventually will link a large part of East Africa to a major port on the Indian Ocean as China seeks to increase trade and influence.
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The railway replaces part of the 660-mile (1,062-kilometer) line known as the "lunatic express," which was built by the British more than a century ago and linked Lake Victoria with the port city of Mombasa. Kenya Railways says the newly opened stretch will reduce passengers' travel time from the capital, Nairobi, to Mombasa from more than 10 hours to four.
The Chinese-funded, Chinese-constructed project has drawn criticism from some observers who call it overpriced; its cost represents about 5 percent of Kenya's GDP. Activists have blocked the railway's second phase with a court order because of concerns about the impact on wildlife as it cuts across Nairobi National Park. Passengers on Monday's journey saw dozens of elephants, zebras and other wildlife en route to the coast.
The newly opened railway is the first phase of a project to connect Kenya's landlocked neighbors Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan to Mombasa. Construction of this 301-mile section was scheduled to be completed in December, but observers said President Uhuru Kenyatta's government hastened its launch to boost his re-election bid in August.
Uganda, Kenya's main trading partner, is expected to start construction of the link between its capital, Kampala, and Kenya's Malaba border post later this year. Construction is expected to take four years, during which time Kenya is expected to extend its line to Malaba.
China is Africa's top trade partner and the world's second largest economy. Last year, a largely Chinese-financed and Chinese-built railway opened between landlocked Ethiopia, one of the continent's fastest-growing economies, and a major port on the Gulf of Aden in Djibouti.
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And China has more planned for Africa as part of its "Belt and Road" project, its largest foreign initiative to date with multibillion-dollar investments in ports, railways and other facilities. Kenyatta was one of many heads of state attending China's forum on the project earlier this month.
Kenya looks forward to the effects on trade. "I expect significant and positive economic spillover effects," said Aly Khan Satchu, a Nairobi-based investment consultant. "There has been a lot of chatter about the need to move 100 million low-cost manufacturing jobs out of China, and this positions Kenya as a possible beneficiary and recipient of that transfer."
Poor infrastructure has hurt economic activity through much of Africa. As Kenya's old railway fell behind on repairs due to corruption, the main road from Nairobi to Mombasa became the main link to the port. The two-lane road has become clogged with vehicles and accidents.
The new railway should benefit tourism, said Mohammed Hersi, chairman of Kenya Coast Tourism Association. But a concern is Kenya's ability to maintain it once the Chinese hand it over, he said.
Kenya Railways has said the Chinese will run the railway for five years before handing it over. The Chinese government-owned Export-Import Bank of China funded 90 percent of the railway project, while Kenya's government chipped in 10 percent.
This version corrects to say the Chinese will run the railway for five years.