Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) technocrats believe they have waded through the storm around the Nairobi National Park.
The next 54 months, they said, are likely to see a section of the second phase of SGR pass through the park. The plan sparked protests from environmentalists when it was first announced.
In an interview with Business Beat, Kenya Railways Managing Director Atanas Maina said the team has got the environmental impact assessment and licensing certificate from the National Environmental Management Authority (Nema).
He added that a consultant is already at the site, as is a design team, to clear any pending final issues. This will then see the National Lands Commission come in to settle compensation claims.
“We expect that in the next six days [to this Friday] we shall have some clarity on when exactly to begin construction. According to our plan, it should be in the course of this first quarter,” Mr Maina said.
Experts who were part of the advisory team for the multi-billion-shilling flagship project say caution has been taken to ensure the animals coexist with SGR “just like they do with aeroplanes”.
In a media briefing at the close of last year, Solomon Ouna, an SGR advisor, told the press that work on the second phase (2A) of the 120-kilometre line to connect Nairobi to Naivasha would begin this month.
“We are not cutting through the park. We are crossing over the park using a viaduct. The train will be flying over the park just like aeroplanes and birds are flying over the park at the moment,” said Mr Ouna. He added that Phase 2A would also require a 5.4 kilometre tunnel that could take 54 months to construct.
The Sh153 billion ($1.5 billion) phase, which will also see Kenya Railways pay out an additional Sh30 billion in land compensation, has courted controversy over the choice of route.
Environmentalists, politicians and activists had expressed concerns that having SGR pass through the park could endanger the existence of the world’s only park in a capital city.
However, Maina said developing 136 kilometres of phase one through Tsavo National Park had taught them enough lessons on how to construct phase two through Nairobi National Park without causing human-animal conflicts.
“The EIA [Environmental Impact Assessment] process has been carried out in a very elaborate way. We have held over 12 meetings with conservationists. The rest of the concerns will be handled by Nema while issuing the licence,” he said.
The experts had seven routes to choose from for 2A, and settled on a modified savanna route that was approved by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) after months of negotiations.
The route was settled on after considering the length through the park, the route length outside the park to a proposed Ngong tunnel, and the cost of construction. The team also had to consider the estimated annual cost of operations on each route.
According to the analysis from planners, taking the railway through Athi River would have cost $832 million (Sh84 billion), making it the most expensive option.
“The Athi River route would not have met the essence of the railway, which is to offer cheap transport. If we went for this option, it would mean increasing tariffs considerably to cover these costs every year,” Ouna said.
A Kibera option was also discarded because it would cost too much at $674 million (Sh68.4 billion).
The experts had also considered going through the national park from Langata and Karen at a cost of $615 million (Sh62.4 billion).However, KWS vetoed this on the grounds that the areas chosen had a high animal population that would not withstand works on a 16.4-kilometre route.
“We had proposed the construction of a tunnel, but KWS said ... that during the construction of the tunnel using cut and cover technology, there would be too much disturbance to the animals,” said Ouna.
There was also a proposal to go from south to east of the park, or modify a similar route. However, these two options, together with the Athi River route, would have required major modifications to enable the reverse movement of trains from and to Naivasha.
This would have attracted an additional $ 200 million (Sh20.3 billion) in construction costs, and another 50 hectares of park land.
“Picking these routes would have meant cutting through the park and isolating it into two. KWS could not agree to that,” said Ouna.
Eventually, the team settled on the savanna route, reducing the section that would pass through the park to six kilometres. This together with a 30.2-kilometre track to the Ngong tunnel will cost $543 million (Sh55.1 billion).
The experts intend to construct an 18-metre-high bridge in the park that will be supported by pillars that are 32 metres apart. This will ensure animals can cross freely.
The bridge will be painted in colours that blend in with the park. To minimise on-ground vibrations when locomotives start running on the rails, the team was ordered to ensure the pillars go deep into the ground and instal noise deflectors.
Construction will start on the northern side of the park and cover two kilometres to begin with.
Aside from convincing park officials that the animals will not suffer, the SGR team also had to come up with a plan to control possible incidents of poaching from workers.
“During construction, regular patrols from police will be available. All staff will be transported out of the park by 6pm. We do not want any poaching incidents,” said Ouna.
All appears set for this challenging phase, with 30 per cent of the contract price expected to be wired to the contractor by end of January.
“We are just completing some of the lender’s conditions for disbursement of the first instalment. In the meantime, we are undertaking a relocation action plan,” Maina told Business Beat.
The completion of SGR’s second phase will see Kenya join the league of countries like South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Australia and USA that have trains passing through parks.