Some Kenyans Say Chinese-Built Railway Leaves Them in the Dust

January 22, 2020 Updated: January 22, 2020
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KIU, Kenya—The soporific buzz of bees fills the abandoned train station at Kiu, a two-hour drive from Kenya’s capital Nairobi. Rusting rail sleepers lay on the grass outside; a slender snake slithers away after footsteps disturb its sunbaked snooze.

A new Chinese-built rail track lies about 500 meters away from the old colonial-era railway station, which closed down in 2012. But the new high-speed trains thunder through without stopping; Kiu is just a dusty blur glimpsed through the window.

Residents of this eastern Kenya town serving 6,000 people, feel bereft without their station and the old railway line, which they depended on to get to work, or the nearest hospitals. Traveling by road is a slow and costly alternative.

Opened in 2017, the new $3.3 billion railway is part of China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, a multi-trillion dollar series of infrastructure projects upgrading land and maritime trade routes between China and Europe, Asia and Africa.

The new railway sliced travel times in half for passengers and cargo traveling between the capital Nairobi and the port city of Mombasa. The non-express service takes just over four hours to make six stops but only runs once a day, a steep reduction from the 46 stops of the old service that ran twice a day.

“This new railway is just for the rich. We do not benefit,” said Thomas Mutevu, a welder in Kiu.

He used to commute to work in Nairobi by train every day, he said. But now the train no longer stops and it is too far and expensive by road, he has stopped commuting. Other Kiu residents who work in Nairobi now only come home at weekends, he added.

State-run Kenya Railways said the new line has boosted local travel. Passengers surged to 1.765 million in the year to June 2019, up from 1.239 million in the year to June 2018, as people who used to travel by road or air opt for the new train.

Cargo was up to five million tonnes last year, although some businesses complain they are being forced to use the new line.

The new rail sliced Emily Katembua’s farm in half. Although she was compensated, she struggles to get to the market without the train.

“The government should put a station here so we can benefit since we are traders who need to travel and sell our produce,” she said, surrounded by goats and sheep.

Vegetable seller Margaret Njeri struggles to see a doctor without the old train. The nearest hospital is 24 kilometers away, mostly on an unpaved road.

Residents must now pay about 500 shillings ($4.93) to get there by motor-bike and minibus, five times what it used to cost on the old rail, they said. Taxis are only for emergencies—they cost 10,000 shillings, almost a month’s wages for a laborer.

“We have to wait on the road many hours for transport because the new railway does not have a stop here,” said Njeri.

Some want the old line, dubbed “the Lunatic Express” when British colonialists built it more than a century ago as it cost the lives of thousands of construction workers from British India and was considered a huge waste of British taxpayers money, revived as an attraction.

“It should actually be a steam train so you can actually see the smoke,” said Mohammed Hersi, the chairman of the Kenya Tourism Federation, a private sector lobby. “That would be something special.”

By Duncan Miriri