Aerial photo taken on May 12, 2017 shows the Mazeras Bridge of the Mombasa-Nairobi standard gauge railway in Kenya. (Xinhua/Chen Cheng)
NAIROBI, June 1 (Xinhua) -- Kenya's Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) launched operation on Wednesday, becoming the newest addition to the list of Chinese-built railways in Africa that are fast-tracking development and delivering green growth.
The 480-km railway cuts the journey from Kenya's capital to the Mombasa Port, the biggest port in East Africa, from 12 hours to just over four hours. While the railway brings about the much-awaited convenience and efficiency, it also succeeds in accommodating the wildlife movement needs, thus causing minimal interference to the animals.
FASTER, GREENER DEVELOPMENT
Prior to the new 3.8 billion U.S. dollars SGR, which is the biggest infrastructure project for Kenya since its independence in 1963, people relied on the two-lane highway (A109) and the century-old meter-gauge railway for road transportation. Neither of the two has been efficient enough to meet the demands of Kenya's rising economy.
Due to lack of maintenance and upgrading, the colonial-era railway has dropped its speed to below 40 km/h and its annual freight volume is less than 1 million tonnes, accounting for less than 10 percent of the total throughput of the Mombasa Port.
The A109 road has long been a problematic alternative, laden with truck traffic and prone to accidents. Overturned trucks are commonplace, paralyzing traffic, damaging roads, and causing pervasive pollution.
The SGR line has a designed speed of 80km/h for freight trains and 120km/h for passenger trains. One freight train, which can haul a record 200 containers, can get about 100 trucks off the road.
Atanas Maina, managing director of Kenya Railways Corporation, said SGR trains will ferry between 40 and 50 percent of port-bound cargo, reducing road damage, accidents and pollution.
The launch of the energy-efficient SGR will also give a leg up to Kenya's tourism industry, a key pillar of the economy, as the line will link the beach and the country's world-famous safari tourism.
Being one of the flagship projects of Kenya's Vision 2030 that aims to turn Kenya into a newly-industrialized, middle-income country providing high-quality life to all its citizens, the SGR is set to play an important role in the east African country's transformation.
Professor Macharia Munene, a Nairobi-based diplomacy scholar, said that the railway will promote regional integration and economic progress in an unprecedented way.
"The SGR unites various people in more ways than transport for goods and services," Munene said, adding that the railway dovetails with Kenya's ambition to become a regional transport and manufacturing hub.
PEACEFUL COEXISTENCE WITH ANIMALS
Thanks to engineering prowess and environmental consciousness from China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), the SGR's contractor, the modern railway line has not diluted the pristine allure of the Tsavo National Park which it bisects as the old meter gauge railway and A 109 did, contrary to fears voiced by some skeptics.
Along the track, 14 wildlife-crossing structures, including six giant ones in the form of underpasses measuring over 6.5 meters in height, have been installed at short intervals to enable the easy movement of animals as tall as adult giraffes. Besides, there are 500 culverts densely dotting the track to facilitate animals' crossing. The CRBC has also erected a fence on both sides of the track to avoid animals climbing over and colliding with moving trains.
"We continuously adhere to the highest standards of environmental and wildlife protection, energy conservation and emission reduction. We do this because it is the right thing to do and based on our values," Steven Zhao, CRBC's external and cooperation manager said.
Xinhua reporters visited the railway at end February. Inside one of the culverts, large footprints of lions and small herbivores could be. Kenyan conservationists have hailed efforts by the CRBC to limit ecological harm to the Tsavo National Park.
Margaret Mwakima, Principal Secretary of State Department of Natural Resources, said a survey done early this year found out that the animals are walking along to the new routes with ease as some rests below the bridge.
"The way the elephants are behaving today indicate they are at home and that the new pathways do not interfere with them at all," she said in an exclusive interview with Xinhua.
RAILWAY NETWORK IN THE MAKING
The Mombasa-Nairobi SGR is only the beginning of what will eventually become a 2,700-km East Africa corridor, connecting Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan and other East African countries.
In the past few years, a number of Chinese-built railways have appeared on the horizon of the whole African continent.
In October last year, Africa's first transnational electrified railway, Ethiopia-Djibouti railway opened. The 752.7-km railway will boost Ethiopia's landlocked economy through the transport of cargo from the Port of Djibouti. The Djibouti port handles over 90 percent of Ethiopia's rapidly growing imports. The railway will cut the transportation time from one week to 10 hours only.
In 2015, a 1,344-km Benguela Railway was launched in Angola, connecting the port of Lobito and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) border.
In July last year, the Abujia-Kaduna line was unveiled, the first standard gauge railway modernization project undertaken by Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation. Construction of the next segment, the 312-km Lagos-Ibadan rail line, has started since March.
As more and more such modern and energy efficient railways are built and become operational, they are expected to hasten the growth of Africa and pave way for the continent to prosperity.