by Andrea Tapper
NAIROBI, June 27, 2004 (The Nation) — After 21 years of civil war, peace is in sight between south and north Sudan - and already plans are underway for an ambitious railway line from Sudan to Kenya.
A German company is to build the Euro 3 billion (Sh300 billion) project.
The building of the railway - which would constitute a first-ever stable transport link between southern Sudan and its southern neighbours - could change the political and geographical landscape of the continent. It would, for the first time, connect the predominantly black and Christian south of Sudan with the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.
The rail is meant to give southern Sudan access to the port of Mombasa to be able to export oil from its vast oil fields on its own account. So far, all oil from southern Sudan is exported through a pipeline via Port Sudan under the authority of the mainly Arab government in Khartoum
"It’s our lifeline of independence," said Dr Costello Garang, Commissioner for International Co-operation of the SPLM/A and designated member of a future government of south Sudan, during a recent visit to Hamburg in Germany. The railway line is estimated to cover 2,500-km and will stretch from Juba via Lokichoggio to Nakuru. Two additional lines are planned to connect southern Sudan with the towns of Gulu and Arua in Uganda.
The German railway builder - Thormaehlen Schweisstechnik AG - has signed an agreement with the SPLM, the Kenyan and Ugandan governments to build the railway.
Thormaehlen is a leading German railway constructor specialised in rail welding and production of jointless rail. The firm has developed a mobile flash-butt welding machine which can undertake mobile railway building anywhere in the world. It has built the railway line between the airport and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, yet the Sudanese pioneer project would be far its most ambitious international construction so far.
"We are confident that we can do it and we are confident that we will be able to procure the necessary finances," said the company owner, Mr Klaus Thormaehlen, during a recent visit by Prof Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, the Minister for Planning and National Development, to Germany. Minister Nyong’o visited Bad Oldesloe, where the firm is located, accompanied by Sudanese officials.
The building of the railway - from the swamps of southern Sudan across the plains of northern Kenya through a vast territory of undeveloped land - could provide much-needed infrastructure to a remote region. The railway is estimated to cost Euro 3 billion including support structures such as tunnels and bridges.
The ambitious transportation scheme is supposed to be partly pre-financed by donor countries, the World Bank and others, but shall ultimately be paid for by oil revenues from southern Sudan.
Under a recently negotiated peace and power-sharing agreement, north and south Sudan will share proceeds from oil revenues 50:50. In six years, the south will hold a referendum over full sovereignty and its political future.
The German company Thormaehlen was founded 15 years ago amidst the reunification of Germany and the privatisation of the German Rail (Deutsche Bahn).
"We started with two employees," recalls the founder and today’s chairman of the board, Mr Klaus Thormaehlen, 52. He worked as technical chief inspector at the German Federal Railways for 13 years. His company, with subsidiaries, now counts 500 employees.
The proposed new railway link between Sudan and Kenya will lead via Nakuru up to Nairobi and from there to Mombasa, providing a second track on that vital stretch. Mr Thormaehlen said: "The current Nairobi-Mombasa line is more than 100 years old and we agree with the Kenya government that it needs replacement."
The Kenyan Roads, Public Works and Housing Minister, Mr Raila Odinga, also visited Germany recently to discuss the project with Mr Thormaehlen.
Further important industrial developments are likely to follow. An oil refinery is planned for Kisumu, disclosed Dr John Garang in Germany. The refinery would process crude oil from Sudan for internal African use.
At present, 450,000 barrels of oil are piped a day from southern Sudan to Port Sudan for export shipment.
Nakuru, in the heart of Kenya, could under the scheme become a hub of railway activities with a new trans-shipment, locomotive and repair depot being planned. Another locomotive and repair depot is to be located in Juba, southern Sudan.
Initial plans were for the new railway line from Sudan to lead to Eldoret but "the terrain was too difficult," said Mr Thormaehlen after his engineers inspected the region recently. Instead, they plan to build the track from Sudan to Nakuru via Lodwar and Lake Baringo.
Building of the rail could start as soon as finances are secured and the peace process in Sudan secured, Mr Thormaehlen said.
The construction of the railway will take at least two years and Mr Thormaehlen is expected in Nairobi next week for further talks about the project.