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Laying new tracks: How Kenya is building new pathways in East Africa


A new rail project is re-connecting Kenya to itself and its East African neighbours. In early 2015, photojournalist Will Swanson spent a week traveling from Nairobi to Mombasa along the old train line to observe the construction of the new line. Here is what he saw.

Some 156 kilometres from the old coastal capital Mombasa, the town of Voi straddles two rocky hills on the Tsavo plains. Nestled deep in the heart of the town, down a dirt track and hidden by bushy Neem trees is the old train station around which the town grew over the last hundred years. Its former economic importance is now lost to the buzz of commerce and trade on the main Mombasa to Nairobi Highway, the now preferred route along which most cargo currently travels.

The sleepy train station has a few afternoon strollers and one family passing time while they wait for a cargo train to bring luggage from Nairobi. “It may come any time from now up to two or three in the morning,” says the father. His children do cartwheels in the afternoon light without a care as to the punctuality of the rail service that has suffered from poor management and lack of investment over the last 20 years.

Now the Kenyan government is rewriting the country’s history with the construction of a new $3.58 billion rail line to connect the port town of Mombasa and its inland capital, Nairobi. The mega infrastructure project, which began in late 2014, will redefine regional transport infrastructure by eventually connecting Mobassa to Nairobi, Kigali, Kampala and perhaps even Juba in South Sudan. The project will supplement the first train line built during the British colonial era in the early 1900s, and while the original line has influenced how Kenya developed over the last century, it has lost much of its functional and economic significance in the last 20 years.

A few adventurous tourists still use the colonial era passenger service, while Indian chemicals company, TATA, transports soda ash and salt from Lake Magadi to the port at Mombasa. Yet while Voi’s station is still functional, many train stations along this famous rail line lie in disrepair. Long abandoned, they hold secrets to Kenya’s past and the role that rail played during the country’s infancy. At one station, a set of rusted levers in the control tower and a brown stained rail map on the station master’s wall hark back to a time when industrialisation first swept through the continent on two steel rails that stretched from the Indian Ocean to Lake Victoria.

It is full steam ahead for work on the new Standard Gauge Rail line that runs parallel to the century-old train line. Kenyan labourers and Chinese engineers from the China Road Bridge Corporation work side by side building up the ground works that rise like a great wall of Kenya, reaching as high as 17 metres in some places. Yet, there are also real fears about how the new train line will affect endangered wildlife such as elephant and black rhinoceros as the juggernaut project sweeps through fragile wilderness areas.

One defining feature of the Standard Gauge Railway project is an incredible sense of urgency by all involved. It seems that almost overnight, thousands of trucks and massive earth moving equipment have been shipped into the country. Scores of hands needed to operate them have been hired through local recruitment drives. The haste to keep the project on target to finish by mid-2017 means that some workers have started without official contracts. Some labourers also complain of a shortage of safety equipment and poor working conditions.Despite the challenges, the conclusion is clear: Kenya is moving forward along new tracks.
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  • A station sign sits over the main terminal at Voi railway yard. The now bustling town of Voi grew up around the railway station which is now hidden behind multistory buildings and hotels.
  • An engineer from Tianjin in China poses at at construction site along the multi billion dollar Standard Gauge Railway project getting underway in Kenya. He is paid around USD2,200 per month in Kenya, a far better wage then he would earn in China.
  • Trucks haul thousands of tonnes of soil to build an embankment alongside the old railway line. Many historic stations will be demolished to make way for the new project.
  • WIldlife Works ranger Edwin Kamui looks out over a private reserve that borders the new rail project. Families of elephants pass back and forth across the location of the proposed rail line, and conservationists are concerned at the possible impact of the project on the region’s wildlife.
  • Local Kenyan employeers are recruited from nearby towns, yet earned as little as USD5 per day compared with their Chinese counterparts. Some workers also complained of poor safety conditions and lack of safety equipment.
  • Local security guard Meshak Githia poses in his bedroom at the disused Kanga station.
  • The new railway is being constructed through the middle of Kenya’s famous Tsavo National parks. On the left Tsavo can be seen, and on the right an embankment on which the railway will be built.
  • A couple sit at the platform of the Voi Station on the Mombasa – Nairobi railway line. The station acted as a junction for a long defunct railway down into Tanzania.


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