NAIROBI — Kenya kicked off the process of the construction of a 500km high-speed standard gauge railway line at the weekend, floating a tender for consultancy services to oversee the design and construction of the project.

The railway line is part of the proposed 820km track that the government intends to lay in the next three years, running from the coastal city of Mombasa to the lake side city of Kisumu.

The first phase of the project will be the Mombasa-Nairobi track, according to the tender document floated by state agency Kenya Railways Corporation.

"Kenya Railways Corporation (KRC) will engage engineering, procurement and construction contractor to deliver turnkey project for the civil works, track works and procurement and installation of facilities, locomotives and rolling stock," the tender document notes.

The planned railway line is one of the flagship projects for the new administration of President Uhuru Kenyatta. His government has already allocated $260m for the project.

Additional financing will come from the newly introduced Railway Development Levy of 1,5% on all imported goods, in order to mobilise an additional $176m.

The government has also exempted import duty on imports of items used to facilitate railway operations.

Tenders will be opened on August 29, the KRC said.

"This project, when completed in three years, will improve turn-round time and reduce significantly the cost of freight from Mombasa to Kisumu, by as much as 79% from about $1,648 to $353 per 20 foot container," said Cabinet Secretary for the National Treasury Henry Rotich.

The current railway track, the Kenya-Uganda Railway has failed to serve the two countries effectively because of years of underinvestment and neglect. It is also slow with maximum train speed of 40km/h.

It is run by the Rift Valley Railway, a consortium of investment companies from Egypt, Kenya and Brazil under a 25 year concession, but its performance has remained below expectations, said cabinet secretary for transport and infrastructure, Michael Kamau.

The current railway line carries about 2.4-million tonnes of cargo a year against its capacity for 7-million tonnes of cargo a year. This means that most of the 16-million tonnes of cargo handled at the Port of Mombasa is transported through the roads, a major factor that contributes to traffic congestion along the Mombasa-Kisumu-Kampala–Kigali route and affects the quality of roads.

The Kenyan initiative will complement the East Africa Community (EAC) regional railway initiative that will be overseen by the East Africa Railway Authority.

The authority will exclusively focus on implementation of the East African Railway Master Plan that was completed in 2009. The aim of the plan is to have an EAC that is fully inter-linked with railway system in the next decade.