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Will commuter rail fix Nairobi traffic woes?

Uhuru Train

President Uhuru Kenyatta flags off Kenya Railways Diesel Multiple Units (DMU) at the Nairobi Central Railway Station on November 10, 2020 that will accelerate the modernisation of the Nairobi Commuter Rail Service. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NMG

Summary

  • A transport system such as commuter rail that will encourage public transit by all classes of people is the solution. But this effort to move Nairobians to non-motorised transport through the commuter rail doesn't seem well planned and connected to have the desired outcome.

Operations of Nairobi Commuter Rail Service is expected to commence anytime, after a fixed daily schedule was released. This is a commendable project, among the rare ones that have a lot of economic meaning under this government. It is even late — the government should have prioritised it much earlier.

In 2018, Nairobi was ranked as having among the worst traffic in the world.

The National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) registers around 7,000 vehicles a month and 90,000 every year in Nairobi. It is projected that the number of vehicles in Nairobi alone is likely to be more than 1.35 million in 2030 going by the current rate of registration.

So, Nairobi has a serious motorised transport problem. A transport system such as commuter rail that will encourage public transit by all classes of people is the solution. But this effort to move Nairobians to non-motorised transport through the commuter rail doesn't seem well planned and connected to have the desired outcome.

First, it has been announced that passengers using the commuter rail service will pay Sh100 a ride to each destination. This means the rail service will not be targeting all classes of people.

At Sh100 for every destination, someone who works in town will be spending Sh4,000 a month on transport, which is not affordable to a big number of Nairobians. So, a majority of users of the services will be the middle class, and there will be room for many public vehicles to remain in the business of ferrying people into the CBD by offering half the cost charged by the commuter rail.

Express service

Second, last week Kenya Railways announced that they would soon launch the JKIA express service targeting air travellers in the year 2021.

The route targets over 24,000 passengers, workers, and other users of the airport. This is a reliable route to run a commuter rail, but this is where more questions about a coordinated plan for non-motorised transport for Nairobi comes up.

So, the route starts from town to JKIA, meaning the Nairobians who would want to use the train services and are not within the rail connecting routes will still have to drive into the CBD, creating a surge in vehicles coming in.

For example, for people living in Westlands, Kilimani, Lavington, Karen, Langata, Runda, South B, Parklands, Pangani or Eastleigh it’s more convenient for them to drive into the CBD or pick a cab than look for the nearest train that brings them to the CBD terminal. So, the plan to move motorised transport outside the CBD becomes a big challenge.

Ideally, the plan should have been to completely move motorised transport within the CBD then charge expensively for vehicles that would come into the CBD, which would then force passengers to use connecting rail routes coming to the CBD.

But that is not possible with the kind of transport system where a congestion pricing scheme for the CBD can't be implemented.

Third, the JKIA route is expected to commence services next year. The government also expects to complete the construction of the JKIA Expressway in December 2022, with 30 percent of vehicles projected to use it.

Conflicting policy

This means the JKIA train route will be competing with the JKIA Expressway, and that the government has a conflicting transport policy for Nairobi by promoting both motorised and non-motorised transport.

It is estimated that light vehicles with two axles will pay Sh100 and Sh300 to use the Expressway, depending on entry and exit points.

With the Expressway constructed under a PPP programme, the government is obligated to push more vehicles there for road toll collection for the private investor or else government will have to compensate the investor.