MOMBASA (AFP) - Kenya launched construction of a Chinese-funded US$13.8 billion dollar ($S17.3 billion) flagship railway project Thursday, hoping to dramatically increase trade and boost Kenya's position as a regional economic powerhouse.
The key transport link, to run from the busy port city of Mombasa inland to the highland capital Nairobi, is eventually hoped to extend onwards to Uganda, and then connect with proposed lines to Rwanda and South Sudan.
"What we are doing here today will most definitely transform... not only Kenya but the whole eastern African region", President Uhuru Kenyatta told crowds at the ground breaking ceremony he called a "historic milestone".
"As a result east Africa will become a competitive investment destination... a busy growing east Africa is good for us a country." Replacing dilapidated British colonial-era lines, Kenyan media have hailed it enthusiastically as the region's largest infrastructure project for a century.
"Kenya is stepping forward...it will be a landmark project both for Kenya and east Africa," China's ambassador to Kenya Liu Guangyuan said at the ceremony.
Financing, currently only from China, has so far been made for only the first 450-kilometre section from Mombasa to Nairobi, replacing the current single trainline with a high-speed standard gauge track, as well as building an additional line alongside.
Work on that section, by the state-owned China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), is expected to be completed by 2017.
CRBC completed in August the first-stage of an expansion to Mombasa's port, including a berth able to handle 50,000 tonne container ships.
According to plans, the new lines would see passenger journey times cut from the current 12 hours to around four, which is around half the current driving time on crowded and pot-holed roads.
Freight trains are planned to be able to cut the current 36-hour trip by rail to just eight, a major boost for regional landlocked nations, with planners claiming it will slash cargo transport costs by 60 per cent.