Moving Nairobi’s traffic off the road and onto the rail

Diana Ngaira, Nairobi Community Manager
Nairobi, 6 April 2016

Public transport in Nairobi remains, to a great extent, fragmented. The patchwork of transport solutions are dominated by buses and mini-vans, which ply more than 100 routes that crisscross the capital. A large percentage of Nairobi’s commuters depend on public mini-vans, called matatus, to move around for work and leisure. The matatu industry plays a role in filling the gaps that exist in the local transportation system. At the same time, the middle class continues to grow, and demand for new and used motor vehicles is on the rise, with an average of 7,000 units making their way into the country every month. Annually, this translates into 84,000 vehicles finding their way onto Kenyan roads, with many of them ending up in urban areas including Nairobi County, which has an estimated population of about 3.1 million. The growing demand for both public and private motorized transport solutions is putting the city under an incredible strain. The main transport veins choke with traffic for many hours each day, with government estimates placing loses related to productivity at Sh50 million daily.

A viable alternative for commuters within and just outside the city precincts is the rail system.

Fortunately, the County will not be starting to tackle this issue totally from scratch. The existing commuter rail network developed on the back of the metre gauge railway line, whose construction was completed in 1901, and it has seen its fortunes change over time. The Kenya Railways Corporation estimates that about 12,000 commuters use the rail service daily. Concerted attention will need to be paid to rail services, in order to improve their utility and allow them to compete with alternative travel modes. Enabling policies will encourage adequate investment in the rail system: the business needs to be marketable as a profit-maker to attract private sector funds. In a classic catch-22 situation, there needs to be a minimum threshold of service to attract more commuters, but there also needs to be sufficient investment in order to provide service.

The moves by the Kenya Railways Corporation to introduce new stations, refurbish coaches used by commuters, and work on efficiency is just the beginning. In order to improve the commuter rail system and attract more passengers, a lot more resources will need to be dedicated to improve accessibility and spread, ensure efficiency in the system while providing for the safety and comfort of passengers.

In another positive move, a bi-lateral project being financed by the governments of Kenya and Hungary is expected to see Nairobi’s suburbs connected via a light passenger train system. This project, which will be launched later in the year, will initially link the new Standard Gauge Railway end-point to the railway station located in the heart of Nairobi, eventually spreading its network to various suburbs. It is estimated that a total of 300,000 commuters will use this new mode of transport daily.

By getting more people using commuter trains, the city will be able to negate the effects of air emissions and noise pollution churned out on the tarmac. These have a cumulative negative effect on our environment and wellbeing, with costs associated with developing and maintaining infrastructure weighing down recurrent public expenditure. In as much as our road infrastructure is a critical factor to help spur economic growth, growing cities like Nairobi need to innovate their mass transit systems in order to ease congestion and provide seamless links between the various modes of transport available.

"I love the convenience the trains offer because our roads are a mess!" Explains Evelyne, a 30 year old banker who lives in Mlolongo, a town located about 20 kilometers South East of Nairobi. "However, we experience many issues, greatly because the trains use old engines. Once in a while we experience breakdowns. There is no proper communication when this happens, and commuters can be kept waiting for any amount of time." Evelyne, like many other rail commuters, laments the lack of redundancy plans in such eventualities, with passengers sometimes made to walk to the nearest station. But she is adamant that as it stands, the benefits still outweigh the costs.

Photo: Trent Albright

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