Could Kenya be building another ‘lunatic line’?
The Sh327bn SGR aims to take container traffic off the roads and boost the economy, but threatens to disrupt wildlife and yield a fiscal crisis
Thousands of railway workers died building Kenya’s so-called “lunatic line”, some by man-eating lions. The BBC’s Alastair Leithead considers if a new railway line through a national park could get the same nickname.
In the top drawer of a desk at Nairobi Railway Museum sits a little box containing three small lion claws that are more than 100 years old.
“The man-eating lions really caused havoc in the history of the railway construction,” says assistant curator Elias Randiga.
The claws belonged to the two lions that struck fear into the workers laying railway tracks from Mombasa through what was then the Kenyan wilderness.
“They managed to kill 100 people, but the total number who died from diseases and other causes was 4,000. For each mile, four people died,” he
It was such an expensive engineering project that the British Parliament suggested only lunatics would spend so much on a railway line to the middle of nowhere.
The construction, which began in 1896, led to the founding of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, and the railway eventually reached Uganda.
These days, building a new railway is a lot faster and easier using the latest Chinese track-laying technology — trains which lay the lines as they go along — but it is still ferociously expensive.
Kenya is borrowing billions of shillings that it will have to pay back, and critics are asking the same questions British parliamentarians did back in the late 1800s: why is it costing so much, and is it value for money?
“It’s a white elephant. We don’t need it,” says Kenyan economist David Ndii.
“It’s not necessary. It’s overpriced. It’s the most expensive single project we have done and it’s not economically viable now or in the future.”
He believes Kenya is taking on too much debt for big infrastructure projects and other developments that have not been accounted for.
Phase one from Mombasa to Nairobi is almost complete, and it aims to take container traffic off the roads and boost the economy. But the voices of protest are now growing louder, as plans for phase two have it cutting through Nairobi National Park. They include conservationists, Maasai community members and those afraid this will be the beginning of the end for one of the only national parks in the world to still exist within
KENYA IS BORROWING BILLIONS OF SHILLINGS THAT IT WILL HAVE TO PAY BACK, AND CRITICS ARE ASKING THE SAME QUESTIONS BRITISH PARLIAMENTARIANS DID BACK IN THE LATE 1800S: WHY IS IT COSTING SO MUCH, AND IS IT VALUE FOR MONEY?
A section of completed SGR at Mtito Andei.
The proposed paths for the Nairobi-Naivasha railway route inside the Nairobi National Park. The blue line on the map (option 4) shows the route the SGR will take through the park.