The tracks for a new, faster railway linking the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa to Kenya's capital will be laid by the end of 2016 and will open for commercial traffic on target in June 2017, the chairman of Kenya Railways said on Friday.
The Chinese-financed project is the first stage in a scheme that aims to extend to Uganda and other land-locked states. The goal is to cut the cost of transport and boost trade, by replacing a narrow-gauge line that has slower top speeds.
"We're ahead of schedule," Kenya Railways managing director Atanas Maina said in Nairobi. "There's government commitment, there's been a lot of push for land acquisition, there's been very heavy mobilization, and the funding has gone very well."
Kenya had aimed to complete 40 percent of civil works, ranging from laying track to fixing bridges, by the end of 2015. It is now on track to complete half the by year end.
Maina said he hoped to have a private management company in place by mid-2016.
A transaction adviser will be in place by the end of September to help select a private management firm for the line, Maina said, adding selection would be done by mid-2016.
"The intention is that operations will be taken over by a seasoned, third-party private operator," he said.
When the project was initially envisaged, the opening date was expected to be in 2018, but since then the government has given the plan a higher priority.
Maina also said he hoped to begin secure financing during 2016 for the project's next phase, connecting Nairobi to Uganda's capital Kampala.
In addition to speeding the flow of cargo, Kenya hopes to transform its passenger service, now plagued by delays. The new line will cut the journey time between Nairobi and Mombasa to four and a half hours from more than 13 hours now. Delays often make it longer.
The new line will have stops in Tsavo national park, one of Kenya's many reserves popular for safaris. Maina said exclusive tourist trips could also be arranged in future on the new line.
When the narrow-gauge line was built in the 19th century, it was dubbed the "Lunatic Express", as critics decried the rising expense and cost in lives as many workers were killed by lions.
East Africa now boasts some of Africa's fastest growing economies, with inefficient transport often seen as one of the major obstacles to expanding businesses.