Having gobbled millions of loan dollars, at least make it viable to operate

BY DAVID WANJALA AND DAVID ONJILI

The 120.49km Phase 2A of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) extending from Nairobi to Naivasha was officially launched by President Uhuru Kenyatta on October 16, 2019. Financed by the Chinese government at an estimated cost of Sh150 billion, it will include both cargo and passenger transportation with four stations; Ongata Rongai, Ngong, Maai Mahiu and Suswa already in operation.

“A train to nowhere,” the country’s blogosphere exploded on the launch day after the sensational headline by a leading daily, as social media users made a feast mocking the project. 

The President, probably reacting to the mockery, was quoted as saying that this was a futuristic investment and that history would prove him right. 

Who was right? The fact that it ends at Suswa gives credence to the ‘Train to nowhere’ media bashing; yet the aforementioned stations can be maximized to fully exploit the investment and not make it another white elephant.

Having used and spoken to a few Kenyans and staff, the choice to make it fully operational and serve the people along the stations lies squarely with the President. 

On October 20 2019, we joined curious Kenyans eager to use the service. We were ultimately disappointed upon reaching Suswa where passengers only have 40 minutes before their return trip to Nairobi. The many children tagging along their parents had nowhere to go and play, as adults had no restaurant to get refreshments from. 

We got to Suswa, stood for 40 minutes and returned to Nairobi! Never mind that of the near 70 passengers that made the full length of the trip from Nairobi to Suswa, only one was seen walking out of the station having reached his destination. At least five boarded on the return journey from Suswa.  Had Kenyans not decided to while their time away on this Sunday by taking the trip, the train, with five coaches would have ferried just one passenger to Suswa and five back. 

Evidently, the two weekly trips to Suswa by the SGR of Friday and Sunday will, in the long run, be made viable by curious Kenyans out to discover their motherland and not travelers going to Suswa, not even Narok, two townships in the middle of vast virgin lands with sparse populations. As such, Government needs to make deliberate but agent strategic steps to actualize, in the meantime, Suswa SGR Station as a leisure destination.

This presents a huge investment opportunity for both private sector actors and government.

Government can by itself, or through tendering to private companies, commission construction of a recreational facility within the station to cater for the needs of passengers upon arrival in Suswa, most of whom will have been lured by mouth watering scenic cites along the route. Think of a kid’s recreational park complete with state of the art (but not overpriced) bouncing castles, swimming pools, play ground; a whole after school package. 

Private investors on the other hand can move with speed and develop the area adjacent to the station for business opportunities, mainly focusing but not limited to what Narok and other neighbouring Counties including Kajiado, Bomet, Nakuru, Kericho and even Kisii can offer. Mouth-watering livestock products come to mind, isn’t it? A wide range of roast, boil and fry of a variety of meat products comes to mind, not to forget milk and the famous Kelenjin’s Mursik. How about curio shops to display the lifestyles of the people of Rift Valley? It could as well be a new market for the soapstone products of the Gusii people.

Many families in Nairobi are stuck with no affordable place to escape with their families to over the weekend and holidays. Suswa, with not just the excitement of a train ride but also the train’s efficiency, can be the ideal place. The route itself, cutting across the Nairobi National Park right from the Syokimau Station with the big cats, the zebra, the giraffe, ostrich and some of the big five on display, to Ongata Rongai, through to the breathtaking sights of Ngong hills, cutting, via tunnels, deep through at least three mountains as you roll down to Mai Mahiu is a phenomenon to behold. 

Suswa would be the perfect place to take care of the boredom of families of not just Nairobi City, but also of the neighbouring Counties of Kiambu, Machakos, Kajiado and Makueni. Not just that, schools and colleges, churches and other organized groups would make yet another pool of viable clientele for the SGR ‘trip to nowhere.’ It is viable.

All the SGR needs is to reschedule its timings to give the travelers ample time to relax and sample Suswa and its environs, say five hour breaks in between. This would then be followed with a vigorous outreach campaign roping in both the mainstream and social media.

Yes, Suswa isn’t the destination of the SGR heading western from Nairobi. But it is where we are for now and we have huge loans to deal with. Naivasha, where the dry port is the target is still out of cite as well. Let us make Suswa work for us. 

Maximise Rongai and Ngong stations 

To travel to either Ngong or Ongata Rongai from Nairobi, one must use either Ngong Road or Langata Road respectively. Both roads are very busy. It becomes a nightmare during weekdays as residents of these far flung areas have to take up-to two hours, stuck in crazy traffic snarlups and exploitative matatu operators that charge from Sh100 to Sh150 one way.

According to the 2009 National Population Census, Nairobi had a population of 3,138,369. As at 2019, the estimated country’s population lies at 52million, a rise from 38million in 2009; which reflects a 36.8% growth. This means that roughly an upwards of 4.5 million people live in Nairobi. Add those from neighboring Kiambu, Nakuru, Kajiado and Machakos Counties who work in Nairobi. The modes of transport within the City include; the new mobile-app run SWVL and Little Cab, matatu, boda boda motorbikes, taxi, commuter train and walking from one point to the other.

Major roads into the Central Business District (CBD) are Mombasa Road, Jogoo Road, Thika Road, Waiyaki Road, Langata Road and Kenyatta Avenue that feed off Ngong Road. The weight of car traffic this places on the mentioned roads is immense and it is reason why Nairobi is  one of the cities associated with heavy traffic in Africa. 

There is also the matter of road carnage. In 2018, according to the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA), a total of 2,917 deaths occurred on the roads in Kenya. Nairobi led with 411 deaths.  There were no noted deaths in the same period with regards to commuter train in Nairobi.

Another headache that Nairobi residents have to endure apart from long hours in traffic and deaths and injury caused by road accidents is the unpredictable fares. Unscrupulous matatu operators hike fares at will. Their industry is unregulated and they are a law unto themselves. Matatu fares from the CBD to Rongai during peak hours range from Sh100 to Sh150, woe unto you should it rain. The same applies to Ngong where a spot check illustrated that they are at Sh100. This unpredictability denies many industrious Nairobians the ability to budget and plan for their fares, especially in these hard economic times of inflation and job losses.

It must be noted that the new phase of the SGR does not reach the Nairobi terminus. It instead terminates at Syokimau. Conveniently, there is a daily commuter train from Syokimau to the CBD and back every morning and evening. Very few residents from Rongai and Ngong have any interest in Syokimau but mostly want to engage in economic activity in the CBD. It must therefore be made enticingly convenient for them to consider the SGR over road transport. 

What to do

According to the train schedule above, (Ngong-Nairobi & Nairobi-Ngong), the train leaves Ngong at 0540Hrs and 13 minutes later will arrive at Rongai where it will spend 4 minutes picking passengers. It then departs for SGR terminus in Syokimau where it arrives at 0620Hrs, a forty-minute trip that includes one four-minute stop only. 

The cost from Ngong to Syokimau or Rongai to Syokimau is Sh100. Then from Syokimau to CBD on a standby Kenya Railways train is Sh60, totaling to Sh160 one-way. But there’s another cost headache of connecting to the railway stations in Ngong and Rongai, which in the end makes the commuter train a far reality for the residents of Ngong and Rongai, and a not so viable investment for the SGR. One pays an average of Sh100 one way on a normal day from Rongai to the CBD via road.

Then there is the late evening trip from Syokimau that departs at 1850Hrs arriving in Ngong at 1930Hrs with a stop at Rongai at 1913Hrs at the same charges. We have intentionally chosen the two trips (early morning and late evening) to depict the movement of mostly working population into and out of CBD. The upside of the evening trip from Syokimau to Ngong is that there is also commuter train from the CBD to Syokimau, which departs town at 1745Hrs and arrives in Syokimau in time for the connecting Ngong trip that departs at 1850Hrs and arrives at 1930Hrs.

Hence a single trip from CBD to Ngong using the train timetable starts at 1745Hrs and ends at 1930Hrs for the evening ride. That is a total of one hour and forty-five minutes. Another worthy observation is that both Rongai and Ngong matatus are boarded at the Railway bus terminus; a stone throw distance to the train station. So what should be done to attract these road users to the train?

Achilles’ heel

The train from the Nairobi terminus connecting to the SGR in Syokimau via Imara Daima that then links Nairobi to Ngong via Ongata Rongai is a great idea. Its weakness, however is the implementation, which is most likely going to make it fail. 

The first and most important aspect is the fare price. As earlier illustrated, it will cost Sh160 from Rongai or Ngong to Nairobi CBD via Syokimau by train. This is Sh60 above the price it costs by road when fares are not hiked, not to mention cost implication of making it to and from the stations in Rongai and Ngong.

It is desirable that the implementers of policy affecting SGR operations should focus on capitalizing on the economies of scale. With this in mind, the cost of commuting via train to and from Ngong to town should not exceed Sh100 one way. Efforts should also be put in place as a matter of agency to ease access to railway stations at Ongata Rongai and Ngong for residents.

That way the only consideration the commuter will be left to grapple with will be that of accessing the two stations of Ngong and Rongai to and from their homes. Weighed against the time lost in traffic jams, unruly matatu operators, loud heart rending music in the said matatus and unpredictable fare hikes, the SGR may win a huge chunk of commuters of these two cosmopolis, jumpstarting a long but desirable journey of commuter train system in the City of Nairobi. 

The thinking is to have more users and even more reliable frequency of trains. An early morning train followed by a mid-morning one then the same frequency in the evening. The city planners must sit down and seek ways of ensuring that a mass of people can at once be moved to and from the city using the train.

A single SGR coach carries 182 passengers if the markings and seat arrangements of the coaches we used on our recent ‘trip to nowhere’ are to go by. If 10 coaches are filled, that translates to 1820 seated passengers not to mention that it is allowed and safe to stand in a moving train coach. If we compare these passenger numbers to a single 43 seater minibus, it will require 43 such buses on one route to move the same number of passengers, and 140 of 13-seater vans that are commonly used in the city. Look at this also in terms of noise and air pollution.

It beats logic that the country is seeking bank loans to build expressways yet we already have a tool that can ease what we want to achieve. What is even disheartening is that such highways seek to encroach into landmark recreational facilities like Uhuru Park and we have senior citizens thinking that this is fine.

COMMUTER TRAIN SERVICE SCHEDULE

Inspire confidence.

Safaricom PLC, the most profitable company in East and Central African still bombards citizens with advertising. Why? Because awareness and presence is key in business. 

From television adverts, billboards, newspaper pages, social media, ride offers and having top government officials and influencers talk about and use the train to inspire confidence in the services will be key. Marketers advise that most of the time buyers don’t purchase products but simply the emotion behind the product or whoever is known to associate with it.

Commuter train is convenient and reliable due to the fixed schedule. For the trip from CBD to Imara Daima, we know that by 1745Hrs the train departs the station and at 1823Hrs you are at Imara Daima promptly. You can schedule your day around that timetable. 

We observed ample, well-manned car packing lots at each of the stations. We were charged Sh100 for parking at the Syokimau station for the three hour trip we took to Suswa and back. 

The Nairobi governor was recently spotted somewhere in France admiring some trams? The problem in the thinking with most Kenyan leaders is never to maximize on what is already available.

Maximize CBD train terminus.

Each morning, several trains from various locations within Nairobi County; Embakasi, Kibera, Kikuyu, Syokimau converge here. All these commuter trains bring in several thousand passengers into the CBD in one trip, zero accidents and minimal air pollution. 

Right outside the terminus is a poorly organized matatu terminus, controlled by matatu saccos that are a law unto themselves. City planners must seek to implement such basic systems, pick these passengers brought to the terminus by the trains and spread them to their workstations then return them to the station in the evening.

According to the Kenya Railways website, they estimate that some 1.5million individuals make their way daily into and from the CBD. How many of these have they sat down to target and what measures does the board of directors of Kenya Railways chaired by Maj. Gen (Rtd) Awitta alongside Transport Cabinet Secretary Mr. James Macharia sought to attract and what are the steps towards this? The President launches, as he recently did, but isn’t it the individual responsibility of the relevant ministries to seek efficient implementation?

The goal for any sensible government is to seek to bring a majority of citizens who cannot afford to live within the city due to high cost of housing to the city for work. Take them away after work in a convenient and reliable mode. The SGR will not break even by banking on passenger transport and cargo but at least it can benefit the already economically exploited citizens and give Kenya a name as one of the African nations that has an effective commuter train system.

Mr President

Several commuter train stations are already at advanced stages of construction including the one at Donholm and Fedha Estate. Commuter trains world over tend to operate from such high-density areas like Embakasi, Dandora and Kibera. Affordability of train tickets to such populated areas is non-negotiable. True to it, the listed routes charge quite reasonable fares. Embakasi-CBD train ticket retails at Sh40 when a matatu charges Sh80 on the lower side during peak hours.

The same sense should be transferred to the Ngong-Rongai-Syokimau-CBD SGR route. 

Train services are usually expensive world over to run and maintain, as the overheads are high. A single passenger train will need stewards on each coach, guards are needed to offer security, and ticket offices need staff. Employees too are unionized and thus their salaries may not be easy to exploit. These are factors that all countries that have invested commuter trains face, but it does not stop the investment. We should never run near empty coaches daily from Ngong to Syokimau because of mere unreasonableness in policy.Consider the number of reduced road accidents, wasted productive hours as citizens are stuck in traffic, and convenience afforded commuters to budget for their earning given the predictability of fares

Everything in this Government’s power should be done to guarantee Ngong-Rongai-Syokimau-CBD train passengers alongside those on other commuter train routes a reliable, affordable and  fully operational  

President Kibaki operationalized the Free Primary Education. Many hail Paul Kagame for making Rwanda clean. Your neighbour Pombe Magufuli of Tanzania has a BRT system that works seamlessly. Run away, Mr President, in your remaining 22 months in office, with a fully operationalised commuter train service that will avail the Nairobi City an opportunity to realize its full potential? 

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