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MOMBASA, Kenya (Reuters) - Kenya inaugurated a $3.2 billion railway funded by China linking the capital Nairobi to the port of Mombasa on Wednesday, the country's biggest infrastructure project since independence more than 50 years ago.
The railway is part of China's "One Belt, One Road" initiative, a multi-billion dollar series of infrastructure projects upgrading land and maritime trade routes between China and Europe, Asia and Africa. [nL3N1HQ2P2]
The line is eventually expected to connect Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Ethiopia to Mombasa so the Indian Ocean port can act as a gateway to East Africa for trade with China and other nations.
The railway was finished well ahead of schedule by China Road and Bridges Corporation and launched at the peak of campaigning ahead of elections on Aug. 8 in which President Uhuru Kenyatta is seeking a second term.
The express will slash the time for the 472 km journey to about four hours from 12 on the line built by British colonialists more than a century ago that stretched from Mombasa to the Ugandan capital and was nicknamed the "Lunatic Express".
The old line was criticised as a monumental folly and waste of British taxpayers money but it became a strategic and economic lifeline for the colonial power. Thousands of workers from British India died during its construction, including a number dragged from their tents by lions.
The new railway was Kenyatta's pet project and it was a key pledge in his 2013 election campaign. He christened the new line the "Madaraka Express", named after the June 1 holiday that marks the day in 1964 Kenya won self-governance from Britain ahead of full independence.
The express gives businesses and passengers a cheaper and safer alternative to the notoriously dangerous trip along the sometimes pot-holed single-lane highway between the two cities that is often clogged with cargo trucks.
"We celebrate laying one of the key cornerstones to Kenya's transformation to an industrialised, prosperous, middle-income country," Kenyatta said ahead of the inaugural trip from Mombasa on Wednesday. "It is for the many, many generations that will come long after we have gone."
The importance of the line to Kenya was underlined by the government's response to the arrest of four men stealing guard rails and cables. It said those guilty of economic sabotage could be hanged.
Kenyatta frequently intervened to smooth out minor bureaucratic delays during the line's construction by China Road and Bridges Corporation and it was completed in 32 months, well under the 60 months allowed by the contract.
The opposition has criticised the new line, however, accusing Kenyatta's ruling Jubilee Party of inflating the cost and siphoning off public funds, a common accusation in a country where corruption is rife.
Veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga, who was prime minister in a power-sharing government from 2008-2013, told reporters on Tuesday the project had been awarded during his tenure but then retendered after he left office.
"The Jubilee government cancelled the contract and readvertised, and re-awarded the contract to the same contractor, but at 120 billion shillings more," said Odinga who is running against Kenyatta in the August election.
"You don't have to deal with mega-projects to the exclusion of micro-projects which benefit the common man," he said.
Atanas Maina, the managing director of Kenya Railways, rejected the graft accusations.
"We have kept to the numbers that we signed for and we have not had any variations in the contract in spite of the challenges," he said, adding that the cost of shipping cargo from Mombasa would be 40 percent lower than by road.
The cost for passengers will also offer an attractive alternative. The cheapest ticket for economy class will be 700 shillings ($6.75), below the 1,200 shillings for a bus ticket.
Aboard the train, talk of China, which has been vying with Western and Asian nations for influence in sub-Saharan Africa, was on the lips of passengers and workers alike.
In the flag-draped carriages, many of the waitresses in black dresses and blue-suited waiters were eager to discuss their Chinese-language studies.
"Its a tough language to learn," waiter Zachariah Ropia said as he moved down the sleek white carriage striped with orange, amber and yellow. "I'm pressing on because of my job."
The line was 90 percent financed by China's Exim Bank and will be maintained and operated by China Road and Bridges Corporation for the next decade.
"A country cannot progress without good infrastructure," said businessman Michael Kariuki, sitting in a first-class carriage. "Anybody who cannot see what China has done for Kenya must be blind ... China is the way to go."
($1 = 103.3500 Kenyan shillings)
Editing by David Clarke