Commuter train a game changer for public transport

Friday, November 13th, 2020 00:00 |
Commuter train.

Mbugua Ng’ang’a

That Kenya has launched a commuter train service for Nairobi this week is too important a development to go unremarked.

Getting workers in the city to move from one point to another efficiently, cost-effectively and safely has been one big headache for policymakers — not to mention one of the most jarring reputational risks Nairobi has had to contend with from visitors.

Now, Kenya Railways has a real opportunity to transform mass transit in the capital, although there is a great deal of work that needs to be done before the service can overcome teething problems and win public confidence.

Despite government efforts to expand roads within the metropolis, build bypasses and link roads, this has not borne desired fruits because private cars have increased in tandem with expansion of infrastructure. It is not difficult to see why this has been the case. 

The privately-run matatus and minibuses have perennially failed to meet needs of the middle-class and upper middle-class, namely safety, reliability, discipline, cleanliness and predictability.

To meet the needs, this segment has responded by buying more cars, sparking fierce competition between local car assemblers and importers of second-hand cars. 

This battle eventually spilled to floor of Parliament with legislators weighing in to regulate age of imported cars in rush to shore up sales of new ones.

Well meaning as the efforts have been, they failed to address the core problem facing the city’s indigenous population, and its visitors, tourists and expats.

With the death of the Kenya Bus Service, which used to run regularly on designated routes, the public was left in the hands of taxis and matatus.

The first problem with taxis was their refusal to modernise their services, including installing meters and painting vehicles in a particular colour as happens in other countries.

The second problem, which arose as a result of the first one, was that taxis had no regulated fares; drivers charged potential customers depending on how they were dressed. 

This explains why taxis had a serious challenge when digital taxi services entered the market.

You will remember in the initial stages, taxi drivers commonly assaulted the digital taxi counterparts, but their violence was rendered moot by the exponential growth of the equally unregulated boda boda sub-sector.

The matatu sub-sector has also faced competition from digital matatu services, and drivers have responded by being aggressive on the road at service, leading to needless collisions that ground many of the digital matatus.

They have lobbied authorities, arguing that the disruptors have been operating outside prescriptions of laws.

With time, such arguments, like violence of taxi drivers, will become inconsequential due to market forces.

However, the entry of light commuter train service is a major game changer in public transport.

First, because it has the capacity to move large number of passengers in one trip, significantly decongesting city roads and major arteries especially during peak hours.

It will also significantly reduce commute time, and because of commute predictability, users can plan their days around trip schedules.

Thirdly, a train service offers clean compartments, safe commutes and predictable pricing, all of which are not guaranteed in the matatu sub-sector. This has been the missing link.

Offering safe and fairly priced parking spaces at designated stations will improve connections between stations and estates.

In the medium term, however, it will be imperative for Kenya Railways to link the service to the airport and also with the Standard Gauge Railway.

The latter is important considering the current link is rickety, underwhelming and in dire need of a revamp.

Similarly, the service ought to be connected to the old Metre Gauge Railway, which is being revamped in the direction of Nanyuki and Nakuru.

This will have major ramifications even for long distance travel between Nairobi and key towns in other counties.

Finally, Kenya Railways should be open to leasing the tracks to private operators as happens in the UK.

This means that users who would want to pay a premium to ride in private trains can do so.

It also means private players can use the tracks between the scheduled public train trips. — The writer is a partner and head of content at House of Romford   [email protected]

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