Nairobi, Kenya (CNN)In 1903, British colonial administrator Sir Charles Norton Edgecumbe Eliot made a bold statement: "It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, but it is uncommon for a railway to create a country."
A legacy of lunacy haunts Kenya's old railway. Will China's $3.6B line be different?
The country was Kenya. The railway became known as the Lunatic Express.
Now 116 years later, another railway line has been built almost parallel to those same tracks in a bid to transform this part of Africa, but this time by a different world power: China.
Whether this railway will earn as colorful a moniker as that of the British endeavor remains to be seen.
At the close of the 19th century, Britain decided to build a railway line from the port of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean to its protectorate of Uganda, in a bid to lay claim to the land in between amid rumblings that the German and French empires were coming for it.
It was a herculean feat of engineering that bound a tapestry of disparate tribes into a nation. Kenya was born, but the human and financial toll was enormous.
For a start, the railway cost almost £650 million ($840 million), sparking outrage at home. Everything from the carriages to the silverware was shipped from Britain -- with little hope of the line ever being profitable.
An old train from the Lunatic Express on display at the Nairobi Railway Museum; a picture of a dead elephant on the old line; a lion tries to enter a carriage.
About 32,000 workers were brought from India to build 12,000 bridges and lay 4.8 million steel keys along the rails for the Uganda Railway, as it was officially called. The local tribes resisted it. And the wildlife was predatory. Lions dined on railway workers, pulling men from their tents at night.
In total, about 2,500 men died from the back-breaking labor and hostile conditions.
In 2014, the Kenyan government decided the aging line needed replacing and agreed to pay the state-owned China Road and Bridge Company (CRBC) about $3.6 billion to build, finance and, initially, operate a Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) between the capital of Nairobi and Mombasa, in a bid to fire-up the East African country's developing economy.
It was a huge gamble. Like its predecessor, the new railway line has been plagued by controversy, as well as accusations that it has resulted in huge debt to China it will take Kenya years to climb out of. But now China appears to be unwilling to fund further sections of the line, leaving a question mark over its future.
A voice over a speaker politely advises passengers to look out the window as the Chinese-built Madaraka Express slices through some of Kenya's most dramatic landscapes at 120 kilometers per hour (75 miles per hour).
To the left, the Tsavo East National Park presents the sort of flat, yellow plains that giraffes are silhouetted against on postcards of Africa, while on the right the Tsavo West National Park yawns open, Mount Kilimanjaro visible in the distance. A dazzle of zebras idles by the tracks. Elephants are often spotted here, the guide says over the speaker.
It's a curious experience. This train line was not meant to be a safari.
"The Madaraka Express has caught us unaware," says Philip Jamuhuri Mainga, managing director of the state-owned Kenya Railways Corporation (KRC), referring to the name given to the passenger service. The train was an immediate sell-out, and a second daily service was provided, along with the tourist-friendly safari announcements. "Even that second train is fully booked," he says.
Elevated on huge concrete pillars, the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) can withstand Kenya's fast rains and huge elephants and is lined by wire fencing to ward off attacks as much as the big game. Viaducts have been crafted so that families of large animals, such as giraffes, can pass under.
KRC claims the Madaraka Express has never once been late and has moved 2.7 million passengers since it opened in May 2017, 70% of whom are local tourists. Economy tickets cost 1,000 Kenyan shillings ($10) and at 4.5-hours, the ride halves road journey times and is four times faster than the Lunatic Express.
The Madaraka Express is spotless, with charging outlets in first class and toilets that are cleaned every 30 minutes. A Chinese flag is displayed in each carriage, reminding passengers of exactly who provided this efficient new service. Indeed, the giant, gleaming glass terminal in Nairobi looks identical to many in China, a country that has built an extensive high-speed rail network over the past decade.
Elizabeth Nduta, 34, a Nairobi resident who used the train for the first time in April, says it is cheaper than flying and safer than the bus. She had never taken the Lunatic Express. "My friends didn't talk highly of it," she says. "It was always late, slow and had bad toilets."
When the first section of the service launched in May 2017, nearly 18 months ahead of schedule, the Standard Gauge Railway was primarily designed for cargo trains shifting freight from the port of Mombasa to Nairobi.
Its main selling point to the Kenyan public was that it would haul 22 million tons of freight a year, slashing cargo transport times from two days to eight hours (the cargo train is slower than the passenger line). Currently, one single-lane road snakes from the capital to Mombasa port. Prone to sudden sandstorms, heavy rains and lethal accidents, it remains an unreliable and unsafe way to cross the country.
A sandstorm emerges on the road from Voi to Mombasa; the landscape after the storm.
At the port in Mombasa, cargo crates with "CHINA SHIPPING" are stacked on the edge of the Indian Ocean, ready to load onto the train.
In the days of the Lunatic Express, which was retired in 2018, the railway handled 4% of the port's traffic -- that figure has risen to 40% on the new line, says Thomas Ojijo, operations expert at KRC. The new railway runs almost to the ships' berthing stations, significantly reducing loading times, Ojijo adds -- an efficiency boost officials hope will increase the port's capacity.
The line could handle far more traffic. Currently running nine cargo trains a day, it's capable of serving up to 26, according to KRC. In the coming years, the government plans to build industrial parks and "dry ports" along the line to handle regional cargo.
While all that sounds positive, in recent years the train has become controversial for the debt it has saddled the Kenyan government with.
In December 2018, reports emerged in the Kenyan press that a Mombasa port was at risk of being seized by Beijing over unpaid debts. Kenya had borrowed $9.8 billion from Beijing as of 2017, according to the Johns Hopkins China Africa Research Initiative, or around 21% of its total external debt. The Kenyan government and China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied the reports, but as concern around African debt to China grows it made people nervous. In 2018, Kenya's total public debt accounted for 63.2% of its gross domestic product, according to an estimate in October by the International Monetary Fund, which raised the country's debt risk to moderate.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Geng Shuang says: "If you want to get rich, you need to build roads first. The lack of infrastructure is a bottleneck that restrains Africa's independent and sustainable development.
"The construction of SGR ... is significant to the long-term social and economic development to Kenya and surrounding countries."
It's a sentiment that Mainga echoes.