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Transport: Can African trains take the strain?

By Michael Obiero in nairobi, Jeff Mbanga in Kampala and Louise Redvers
Posted on Friday, 26 July 2013 08:56

For years, Barrack Otieno endured a two-hour journey to work on traffic-clogged roads from his home 18km east of Nairobi.

Now it takes the 37-year-old estate agent only 30 minutes to reach the city centre from his suburban housing estate by train using the new Syokimau station opened last November.

“I would have spent ages in a traffic jam,” says Otieno, one of the mainly middle-class passengers lucky enough to get a seat on the 7.05am train to Nairobi Central.

The system operates between just two stations for now, but construction has already begun on three other rail stations around the city as part of a $300m urban transport master plan.

Nairobi Commuter Rail is one of a series of mass transit systems that city planners across Africa are rushing to roll out as urban populations grow across the continent.

The African Development Bank predicts that African cities will be home to 65 percent of the continent’s population by 2060, up from 40 percent in 2010, putting pressure on transport networks that are already under huge strain.

Casablanca opened a new tram system last December, with others planned across Morocco.

In Lagos, the first phase of a light rail system is due to open in the coming months, working in parallel with Africa’s first bus rapid transit (BRT) system, opened in 2008.

Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, is looking to repeat Lagos’s success and is waiting for the African Development Bank’s decision on whether to finance a pilot BRT corridor and improvements to the city’s feeder roads.

Price war

When the Nairobi train started in mid-November, it received criticism that ticket prices were too high.

Commuters were paying KSh100 ($1.20) for a one-way ticket for the 18km journey.

It is conceived as part of a ‘park and ride’ model, with motorists paying an additional KSh100 to leave their cars at the station.

Using a minibus taxi, known as matatu, costs about KSh70 for a one-way trip.

In late April, the Kenya Railways Corporation (KRC) dropped prices by 40 percent for off-peak travel, to KSh30 for a one-way ticket between Syokimau and the city centre.

It said it wanted to encourage off-peak travel.

The cut-price fare has set the train service up for a battle with the matatus – a fight that KRC was originally keen to avoid. Still, KSh30 is not affordable for many of the population.

“Rail transport the world over is a mass transport system. It won’t work if they stick with this middle-class model,” argues Vimal Shah, chairman of the Kenya Private Sector Alliance.

Figures from UN-Habitat show that private vehicle fleets are rising faster than population growth in many African countries and by as much as 10 percent per year.

The fare drop is a boon for 21-year-old Mary Njoki, a student at the University of Nairobi, who prefers the rail service.

“The rail has a bit more of comfort, reliability, time saving and safety, but the lower fares have changed the game,” she explains.

In Uganda, the government has an ambitious plan to improve the transport network as part of Kampala Capital City Authority’s Physical Development Plan.

Work on the four-lane Kampala-Entebbe Highway, set to cost $474m, is expected to be complete in 2017.

Other construction projects under the transport plan include new lanes for a BRT project.

Previous attempts to reduce traffic within the city, such as the introduction of Pioneer Easy Bus, have failed.

Pioneer, a private company, folded less than a year after starting operations as a result of its financial woes, acrimony among the staff and its failure to win government support in the form of subsidies and tax holidays.

In April, Kampala City Authority announced its intention to import about 400 buses from Indian company Tata as part of the plans to succeed where Pioneer failed.

Led by South Africa, which opened a couple of BRT networks in Johannesburg and Cape Town ahead of the FIFA World Cup in 2010, several African cities are now considering BRT systems, which require a network of special lanes and stations.

“The capacity of the BRT is equivalent to the capacity of a light rail, and it’s much less expensive” says Jean-Noel Guillossou, programme manager at the World Bank’s Sub-Saharan Africa Transport Policy Programme (SSATP).

“This is really a mode of transport that can respond rapidly to the growth of cities.”

The SSATP is working with African governments to set up policy frameworks to support urban transportation infrastructure and to facilitate communication between transport authorities and politicians.

But there is no one-size-fits-all solution, particularly as mass transport systems often require investment in feeder roads into the major trunk routes.

In the Angolan capital Luanda, where construction plans often take a long time to come to fruition, a quick win may come from water taxis, which require less infrastructure than trains and buses.

Expatriate oil workers already use that mode of transportation to get from the suburb of Talatona to the SONILS oil base.

The Luanda city government is planning a network of routes running north to south down the Atlantic coast.

Residents also welcomed an announcement of bus lanes, but because many of the main arteries into the city are dual carriageways and lined by buildings, it is unclear where those lanes would go and how effective they would be.


Built by Portugal’s colonial administration for 500,000 people, Luanda now has an estimated population of six million.

From only a few main routes just five years ago, Luanda now has a network of expressways and flyovers.

Sometimes the new roads drop from five lanes to two, causing major bottlenecks. Bad drainage means heavy rains create havoc, leaving behind enormous potholes.

The word used for traffic in Angola is transito, but once you get into it you generally cease to transit very far at all.

There are already commuter train services on the 20km Luanda and Viana stretch of the newly-rehabilitated Caminho de Ferro de Luanda, with some 10,000 people a day using this route.

In March, the company announced that trains would run up to 11pm to accommodate more passengers.

Transport minister Augusto da Silva Tomás said in early March that studies are underway for three new train lines linking the centre of Luanda to Talatona, Kilamba Kiaxi and the new airport at Bom Jesus.

Guillossou laments the relative lack of interest from governments and development partners in urban transport infrastructure, with the majority of funding going to transport projects to promote regional integration.

However, he says countries are “realising that urban planning and transport need to go together so the growth of cities will be better controlled”.

If they act now, African urban planners have a good opportunity to avoid some of the problems of pollution and congestion found in mega-cities in Latin America and Asia.●

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