So we have just experienced a very near miss. Phew. That was close! For a moment there, phase 2 of Kenya’s international SGR railway was going to be cutting right through our back garden. Okay, not quite through our back garden, but a short stone’s throw from it.
Confused? To give you some background, over the past year the Chinese built, single track ‘Standard Gauge Railway’ has been racing up 472 kilometers from Mombasa toward Nairobi at an impressively high speed. The plan is for the railway to run from Mombasa then Nairobi to Uganda and on to Rwanda, with a branch line into South Sudan. Today, a giant embankment like a monster’s spine, dominates the view alongside Mombasa road from the Capital to the beach. There are some vast elevated sections that defy belief but the majority runs along a 12 meter high embankment. Where once on the way down to the coast we looked out over Tsavo National Park trying to spot elephants between the Baobabs, we now have the entire view blocked on one side by the gigantic railway embankment with an occasional billboard, bearing messages such as, ‘China Railway Project: Arrive an unskilled worker, leave an engineer’, or ‘Engineering in Nature’.
Due to the excavation of soil needed to build this gigantic railway embankment, last July, whole towns were coated in a fine layer of Kenya’s red dust, like cocoa powder. This must have been most annoying for the residents. Roadside sellers looked desperate as their tomatoes and oranges went a deeper shade of rust. Back on that route a second time this year, by December, thanks to recent rains, there were signs of grass growing up the railway embankment sides and the small ribbon towns that line Mombasa road were emerging from their choking red cloud. The railway will be vast. It’s actually described as a global ‘mega-project’ and we are nearing completion of phase one in Kenya, the route from Mombasa to Embakasi (the industrial area) in Nairobi. The new rail network will mainly be used to carry freight, relieving Kenya’s roads of the incessant flow of lorries but what concerned the residents around where I live in Karen is phase 2.
I am not quite sure how the news originally broke but the timing was not great. It was just before Christmas. This timing seemed ominous, deliberate perhaps. Someone had managed to see plans of seven possible routes phase 2 of the railway might take from the Embakasi area back out of Nairobi and they also managed to photograph and disseminate the information. One of the possible seven ran straight through our little neighbourhood just meters behind our house. The grand scale southern bypass road that now runs behind us was one disruption (which I have to admit I drive on every day, so it’s also a big help) but a high speed rail link was something else entirely.
My husband attended a couple of meetings and even managed to drag me along to one or two. A residents committee was quickly assembled without much ado and by some miracle, people got organised. Thank goodness there are lawyers and even judges who live around here. Most of us residents felt helpless but a couple of heroic Kenyan and long term expat residents stepped up and said that they were going to approach the government and Railways in the ‘proper’ way. Fielding and sending out information and emails became a full time job for the key players of the committee. They worked tirelessly over Christmas, deciding on a strategy via which to engage people who have a real say in these things – i.e. the government. In the meantime, there was also lot of worry. We had visions of massive escarpments, more forest destroyed or thundering railway carriages on elevated lines running past just meters from our house day and night. Others wondered when they might have to sell up, pack up and go. There are quite a few retirees who live around us complaining of sleepless nights. Others wondered if there was more to this issue than we first thought. Would residents ever have a say? Were some developers pro bringing the route through here, in order to benefit from compensation? Would our little neighbourhood be filled with high rise flats and offices within 5 years? Conspiracy theories abounded. There were ‘branch’ meetings, people used any relevant contacts to try to find out information. Rumours and gossip at the Karen Club was dominated by ‘railway’ talk. No one knew what was going on. Neighbours who, up until now, had more or less no idea that one another existed behind closed gates, became firm partners in the face of adversity. People talked about how to get the ‘right’ lawyer to represent our case. There was talk of organising legal injunctions to stop the railway progressing. David and Goliath style. In fact, all the elements of a great thriller were involved. The only thing missing was a murder.
And so, this story’s denouement culminated in a grand meeting one rainy evening in early Jan. I was sent along to find out what might happen, since my husband was tied up at work. The kids were just back from school hungry and weighed down by homework and I didn’t feel like going but I dragged myself along, only to be surprised by the sheer number of cars that lined the roads around the little restaurant behind our house. I rammed my car up against the kai apple hedge and, once extracted from it, strode in (glad of the sturdy boots I was wearing and only 10 minutes late). Proceedings had not yet begun but there must have been over 150 people in attendance. Perhaps 200. Who knew that this many people live here? We eyed each other. I thought to myself, this looks like quite a crowd. I recognise a lot of these folks. It could have made quite a fun party – if it wasn’t for the serious reason that we were gathered there.
So the committee or organisers stood up and introduced themselves, recapping the story so far that had begun just a month ago. They made good MCs. You could tell that they were happy about something and were holding a prize bit of information back. I took a look around – hang on a minute, I thought, there’s Mrs Smith and she lives nowhere near here! She from flipping Langata.
The ‘star’ guest was introduced. The MD of the railways, Mr Maina. He struck me as a nice guy caught in a tough position. He explained the challenge he has on his hands; on one hand trying to push infrastructure development for Kenya and on the other, trying to minimise upheaval and protect the environment. Nairobi is a huge and mushrooming city and the infrastructure is, frankly, shocking. The fact that people have to rely on broken down minibuses or ride on the back of motorbikes to get to work because there is no alternative transportation is poor. The roads are choked with lorries and the Government is trying to implement it’s Vision 2030 goals. Mr Maina said that the rail network needed building but he too wanted to enjoy the forests and Nairobi National Park with his children and feel that he has done the right thing. (There is a theory that if the rail line runs through the park, then the whole area will be de-gazetted, clearing the way for yet more land grabbing and housing).
Anyway, pretty soon Mr Maina said that there were indeed 7 possible routes that had been drawn up for the rail line and these routes were drawn based solely on land gradient and not feasibility. He then announced that of the seven routes, the one running through this particular neighbourhood had been deemed the least feasible, so would definitely be scrapped. Mr Maina smiled. There was a cheer, and this is exactly where the meeting should have ended, but no….
I had taken a seat right at the back in order to keep a low profile and make a fast exit, but sadly two seats away from me was a TV conservationist who took the opportunity push her own agenda on elephant conservation and make pronouncements about insufficient underpasses through Tsavo for elephant migration (to which Mr Maina responded that they had strictly followed KWS issued guidelines on this). I edged my chair further away in order to distance myself. Mrs Smith then jumped up said that she lived in Mukoma Estate in Langata and would the rail line go through her house, if it wasn’t going to go through this route in Karen? The same conservationist was then up again to talk about elephants, also dropping in that she lived in the same area in Langata and wanted to know if her house would be bulldozed too. I have to admit to an eye roll at this point. There was more chat from others about the Nairobi National park, would it definitely be protected? And what about the Ngong Forest? 65% has already been lost to the construction of the new ring road. Poor Mr Maina looked crestfallen. The meeting had well and truly been highjacked. A very smart elderly Kenyan man stood up solely to thank Mr Maina for attending the meeting and for putting our minds at ease and then he sat down again. I just wish that the others had been as gracious. In my opinion the Q and A session was a mistake. Mr Maina had to endure an hour of emotional pronouncements which, while no doubt valid, were entirely off topic for this meeting’s agenda. One cheeky woman asked if the area committee for our neighbourhood, might be interested in taking on the task of campaigning against a possible rail route through hers. Really?! Time to make a fast exit. As soon as I could I was out. Only Mr Maina might have just beat me to his car.
I feel the pain of others who might now have the railway spectre hanging over their neighbourhood and promise that I don’t feel the least bit smug over the fact that our crisis is over (that is, until the next one looms), and the world will always need conservationists and campaigners, but would very much like to take this opportunity to thank the incredible and heroic group of neighbours who managed to get straight answers from the right people, the right way and also thanks to Mr Maina, who was willing to stand up and be counted.
2017 Update – it’s a reality! Watch the first test run, Nairobi to Mombasa in 4.5 hours. April 2017
- Kenya Railways Corporation is developing a new standard gauge railway (SGR) line for passengers and cargo transportation between Mombasa, the largest port in East Africa, and Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya.
- The new railway line constitutes the first phase of the SGR project that aims to connect Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan.
- The Mombasa-Nairobi SGR is the biggest infrastructure project in Kenya since independence. It will shorten the passenger travel time from Mombasa to Nairobi from more than ten hours to a little more than four hours. Freight trains will complete the journey in less than eight hours.
- Construction of the 609km-long line began in October 2013 and is scheduled to be completed by December 2017.
- The Mombasa-Nairobi phase of the project is estimated to cost KES327bn ($3.8bn). China Exim Bank will provide 90% of the financing while the remaining 10% will be contributed by the Kenyan Government.
- The SGR project is proposed to connect Mombasa to Malaba on the border with Uganda and continue onward to Kampala, Uganda’s capital city. It will further run to Kigali in Rwanda with a branch line to Juba in South Sudan. Branch lines along the route will extend to Kisumu, Kasese and Pakwach.
- The SGR is a flagship project under the Kenya Vision 2030 development agenda. It will simplify transport operations across the borders and reduce travel costs, apart from benefiting the economies of Kenya and the neighbouring countries.
- Apart from the Nairobi eastern station, the SGR will also have stations in Mombasa, Emali, Kibwezi, Mtito Andei, Maiseny and Voi. The construction of the stations has commenced.