One of the most interesting recent developments in Kenya is the budgetary allocation by the Kenyan Government for an urban commuter railway. This came under the drive to improve productivity and competitiveness through investment in modern transport and logistic networks.

A few weeks prior to this, the Governor of Nairobi launched the Nairobi Integrated Master Plan that provided proposals in various fields of urban planning like transportation, water supply, solid waste management and telecommunication. One of the key proposals was that of a Mass Rapid Urban Transit System, including Light Rail and Metro Rail.

Aerial View of Nairobi Railway Station, Kenya

Nairobi’s current urban commuter railway network is comprised of a national railway network that was originally constructed to link the port of Mombasa with Uganda. A demand for urban transportation led to the start of the service as an alternative mode of travel for those who live along the railway line and those residing in suburban areas. The service, comprised of over 50 coaches and covering five routes with two services a day, primarily uses old wagons and diesel-electric engines. It transports up 20,000 passengers per day.

The service is very popular among the working class as the rates are lower than other available forms of transportation. Coincidentally, many settlement areas are located along the the railway line. The middle class citizens have been kept away by the limited routes covered and perennial overcrowding of wagons. With the large numbers on some routes, some passengers are forced to hang on the wagon doors and when other public transport services are on strike, people even sit on the roof. Poorly designed drop off points at times enable others to use to service without paying, while at times of bad weather or engine failure there are massive delays on some routes.

Passengers wait for a train, Nairobi, Kenya

The Syokimau railway system was developed to create a park and ride system for those living slightly out of town but facing heavy traffic jams. This saw the first additional railway track laid in almost a century. Unfortunately, there have been complaints that the service has been running at a financial loss as it fails to break even with lower than expected passenger numbers.

Besides that, the Kenya Railways Corporation saw the need for the expansion of the commuter railway line and have been in the process of developing a new railway system under a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) agreement. They intend to have a system that can transport up to 172,000 passengers per day. This would involve construction of Light Rail Transit (LRT) along corridors used by road travel, in order to serve the current and forecasted demand. An airport railway system has also been proposed and plans are underway with this.

Diesel-Electric Engines, Nairobi, Kenya

Light Rail Systems are not common in Africa, with most of the existing systems being in North African Cities. One of the most successful is the Tunis Light Rail, better known as Metro Leger de Tunis, which was developed in 1985. Others are in Algeria, Egypt and Morocco.

Is urban rail transport sustainable in developing countries? Would rail travel be the solution to modern urban transportation problems in African Cities?

Credit: Images by Constant Cap. Data linked to sources.