Kenya is on track to launch its 472-kilometre Standard Gauge Railway, which links the port city of Mombasa and the capital, Nairobi, by June next year.

This will be the first phase of a 13.8 billion US dollar line which will connect Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and eventually South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo and which forms the bulk of Chinese finance deals to Kenya signed in 2013.

Speaking about progress on the the railway, Atanas Maina, the Managing Director of Kenya Railways, says: “In terms of civil works, the project is 99 per cent complete. We have laid the track and we will be starting testing and commissioning from February going through to June and we believe we will be ready for the first run by June 1, 2017.”

Kenya is betting on the new railway line to de-congest the port of Mombasa and the country’s roads, while at the same time, shorten the journey for both passengers and freight. The Standard Gauge Railway has a capacity of hauling 22 million tonnes of freight a year.

“The (old) metre gauge (railway line) is no longer able to fully respond to the demands of this economy and the region. Its maximum capacity is five million tons and our port is doing close to 30 million tonnes. We need a faster, efficient, high-capacity standard gauge railway,” says Maina.

At the construction site, work is continuing around the clock. The country’s biggest infrastructure project is taking shape and just like the metre-gauge line built by the British in 1895, controversy has dogged the Standard Gauge Railway.

At least six kilometres of the line will cut through the Nairobi National Park which conservationists say will spell doom for the country’s wildlife.

Isaac Ole Kishoian, a resident living close to the Nairobi National Park says: “If the railways go through the park, the lions and all the predators will come to our villages.”

However, an engineer on the project, Wilfred Ndulu, says the necessary measures have been taken. “We have been able to discuss with the Kenya Wildlife Services and we mapped all the paths of the wildlife and we were able to provide openings so that we do not interfere with the wildlife.”

Sceptics have also argued that the line, which is 90 per cent financed by the Export-Import Bank of China, is too expensive and overly ambitious. They argue that Kenya may not have sufficient traffic volumes to meet the operational costs and repayment of the loan.

The Kenyan government says it is already reaping the benefits of the line as 20,000 people have been employed to work on the project since its inception in December 2014. Local businesses have, however, struggled to meet the 40 per cent local content target.

The second phase of the line linking Nairobi to the Rift Valley town of Naivasha begins in the next few months as East Africa seeks to integrate the region’s infrastructure.