Testing the tracks of SGR’s new Nairobi-Naivasha line

The massive effort to create a rail link between Kenya’s capital Nairobi and the strategically critical Indian Ocean port of Mombasa was derided by some as a pipe dream. But by June 2017 the deed was done and the economic landscape of the East African powerhouse was changed forever.

Now, engineers from Kenya’s rail authority and China Road and Bridge Corporation are taking things a step further, with a plan to extend the historic Standard Gauge Railway westward, all the way to the Ugandan border.

The project will take years to complete but this month planners are marking a historic milestone: the completion of the extension’s first phase.

On September 10, CGTN’s team boarded a diagnostic test-run on the newly laid track, which snakes its way deep into the heart of the Great Rift Valley, connecting Mombasa and Nairobi to the capital’s western suburbs, terminating near the regional hub of Naivasha.

As soon as October, this vast swath of Central Kenya will be accessible to rail travelers like never before. In just a little over an hour, Nairobians will be ferried across 120km of track – through three lengthy tunnels and across several impressive bridges before being deposited at the foot of Mount Suswa — a magnificent shield volcano and a touristic destination in its own right.

The journey takes travelers across Nairobi National Park, where a lengthy flyover allows the abundant wildlife to cross the path of the track unimpeded.

The influence of Chinese design principles are strong; while the shiny new stations at Ongata Rongai, Ngong, Mai Mahui and Suswa, each boast a uniquely designed exterior, their insides are highly reminiscent of the polished, businesslike aesthetic that mark train terminals throughout the PRC.

Planners aboard Tuesday’s test-run were proud of what they accomplished and expressed high hopes that the new line would boost the region’s economy by providing convenient links to the coast and the capital while easing the flow of commodities to Kenya’s interior.

Looking around the largely deserted landscapes that surround the station sites, it could at times be hard to envision who exactly the terminals were aiming to serve. But if past infrastructure projects in the region are anything to go by, there is reason to believe that the time-tested adage will once again hold true: “If we build it, they will come.”

The anticipated opening of the Nairobi-Naivasha line comes as some in the region are beginning to rethink the future of the SGR project.

As uncertainties crop up around the funding of future segments, the governments of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania have all made plans to revamp their old colonial-era meter-gauge lines as a temporary or even long-term substitute for standard-gauge projects — a fraction of the cost.

But regardless of what the coming years will hold for East Africa’s lofty railway masterplan, the extension of Kenya’s SGR to Naivasha will surely be remembered as yet another step in the region’s steady march towards integration.