Kenyan towns, especially the City of Nairobi, continue to choke with traffic brought about by the over-dependence on the motor vehicle and the insufficiency of related infrastructure. One alternative that urban planners can use to overcome this challenge is mass rail transit. However, the existing rail system in Kenya is not capable of providing such a service. Built during colonial times, the current rail system runs from Mombasa through Nairobi to Uganda. The fact that it is not standard gauge, and has been poorly maintained, has led to its unpopularity over the years. However, the future of rail transport looks bright with the government undertaking such projects as the Standard gauge rail project, within the LAPSSET project, and the introduction of the Syokimau commuter rail.

Syokimau Train

The Syokimau Commuter train

The Syokimau commuter rail was introduced in November 2012, with service aimed at easing congestion on Mombasa road and to serve as a link with between the Central Business District and Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. The commuter rail also serves residents of Kitengela, Syokimau, Athi River, Mlolongo, and the surrounding areas. Additionally, the larger Eastlands are also benefiting from service after the recent opening of Imara Daima and Makadara train stations that lie along Syokimau and the Central Business District. The Syokimau train station was the first to be developed, in about 80 years. It is named after a prophetess who lived in the area around the seventeenth century. She is said to have prophesied the coming of the colonialists and the development of the Mombasa to Uganda railway line that was completed two centuries later. The station provides ample parking for vehicles for park and ride purposes and the commuter service provides peak and off-peak service between Nairobi and Syokimau.

Syokimau Statue

A statue of Prophetess Syokimau at the Syokimau Railway station

The commuter train service, however, is not going as well as planned; with fewer people currently using the service than expected. This cause was mainly attributed to the high introductory fares that were being charged. However, this trend has not changed, even as the government subsidized the service by half. Most Kenyans still prefer using the Matatu, which has led to the Kenya Railways Corporation making heavy losses in the venture. Other challenges come from the fact that the line passes through a slum area where its schedule is occasionally interrupted by various incidences. Some urban planners also feel that the commuter rail service was introduced in the wrong area. The argument is that service should have been directed to a corridor with a large number of commuters, such as Thika and Limuru.

Mass transit rail is one of the major reasons why most developed countries in Europe and Asia have been able to tackle traffic congestion in their cities. Kenyan towns, and especially the city of Nairobi, need a comprehensive mass commuter rail transit system. However, as proven from the Syokimau commuter service line case, urban planners need to do more evaluation and feasibility studies to ensure the efficiency, economy, and sustainability of the commuter rail service.

How do we make Kenyans ditch the Matatu and utilize the Syokimau Commuter rail service? Has your city experienced any similar problems with mass transit?

Credits: Images by Joseph Waithuki. Data linked to sources.