Why doesn’t Nairobi have a light train system yet?

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BY DAVID ONJILI

It is a no brainer that there is an acute demand for efficient, reliable and decent mass transit system within Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya. With the centralization of civil service, commerce and other service activities within the Central Business District (CBD) and industrial areas, the influx of citizens can be overwhelming especially as the city grows.

With average passenger traffic of 19,000 people daily, the existing railway system within Nairobi is extremely underutilized factoring that 75% of commuters employed in the CBD relies on public transport.  Government estimates that around 1.5 million people access the CBD daily via public transport creating nightmare traffic congestion as people do not just waste productive man hours but pollution (noise and air) rises.

One would expect that any forward thinking government would seriously consider railway transport to boost the already existing but old one. The only one existing has a train towards Kibera to the West of Nairobi and to Syokimau in the South of while there too exists one to Embakasi Village to the East of Nairobi. There only exist two modern railway stations on these routes, one at Makadara and the other at Imara Daima yet demand shows more is needed. Is it then by design or default that we do not seem to be keen despite many promises to set up an inter city railway network? Who or what are the forces sabotaging this important investment?

On 19 February 2016, President Uhuru Kenyatta promised that in June of the same year an urban train system connecting Nairobi suburbs to the city center would be established. The project co-financed by both the Kenyan and Hungarian governments was hailed as one that would help ease traffic along major roads and reduce significantly time taken to commute within the city.

Once completed, it was envisaged to help transport 300,000 people on a daily basis, still a very tiny fraction compared to the people who access the CBD daily, connecting distant areas like those along Thika Road, Mombasa Road, those in Ongata Rongai and Limuru Road to the Nairobi Railway Station located in the central business district. This was not the first time a sitting government was promising such. The Grand Coalition government in line with the Vision 2030 had the Metropolitan Master Plan. A Mass Rapid Transport System was to be set up; it included a special lane for buses and a light commuter railway line along major lines like Waiyaki Way, Mombasa Road, Thika Road, Langata Road, Outer Ring Road and Juja Road. All these were to be supplemented with a circular mass transit route around the CBD to ease connectivity within the city.

Yet, to date all these have remained pipe dreams if not campaign carrots dangled by politicians to Nairobians. The last masterplan for Nairobi was done in 1973 and was to cater for the City until the year 2000 at the turn of the new millennium. We still rely on it despite the fact that the population of Nairobi was estimated to be around 3 million according to the 2009 census, a figure that has almost doubled in recent years. Kenya’s middle class has grown and purchase of personal cars increased and is causing a major strain on the existing road network resulting in traffic nightmares.

Ethiopia seem to have their act right, as at the year 2015, their light railway system was already operational. Financed by the Chinese government at a cost of $475m, it helps ease the movement of close to 4 million inhabitants of Addis Ababa. While land rates in Addis are extremely high, with an efficient railway, people have been encouraged to live out of the suburbs but can commute to the City without fear of traffic delays or exorbitant bus fares. A train ticket in Addis costs roughly $0.25 (0.25) for one way and passengers are saved the burden of long queues experienced when one chooses the road. Similarly, Kenyans living in areas like Syokimau, Mlolongo and Athi River have benefited from the Syokimau train; this is an example of how an effective intercity railway system can help. The commuting time on the route is approximately half an hour as opposed to close to two hours during peak hours on the same route by road.

The major problem in Kenya is that transport is controlled by a cartel. Senior government and police officials own a number of public transport vehicles that charge exorbitant fares, likewise none of them would honestly want an efficient and highly subsidized railway system since it would eat into their profits. This personal greed over the general welfare of citizens is what the central government led by the President must stamp on and ensure the Rapid Railway System is operational.