Makeovers raise hope of improved rail transport in Nairobi metropolitan

After many years of promises, missed deadlines and growing pain of nauseating traffic gridlock, Nairobi’s commuter rail travel looks set for a big come back.

With several transformations already underway, including the creation of 10 new railway substations and introduction of 11 refurbished Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs) on upgraded tracks, there is hope that the city’s railway system would finally be revamped and bring relief for millions of city commuters long inconvenienced by a chaotic public transport system.

The World Bank estimates that Nairobi residents on average spend an hour to travel to work and another 60 minutes commuting back home due to traffic congestion.

A spot check in parts of the city including Mutindwa, Githurai and Embakasi at well as the main railway station in the Nairobi central business district (CBD) shows stepped up civil works in readiness for the new commuter network.

The ongoing civil works will see the rehabilitation 26-kilometre Makadara–Ruiru line; the 31km Nairobi-Kikuyu line; the 7.2-kilometre Makadara-Embakasi village line and the upgrade of Nairobi Central Railway station.

On the Embakasi line, for example, the old railway track has been uprooted by teams from the Kenya Railway Corporation and is set to be replacement.

“To move you faster and better, we are upgrading our Nairobi commuter rail network one sleeper at a time. Starting with the Embakasi line, we are currently lifting off the existing track panels before doing the earthworks and re-railing using 80 lb (pound) rails” KRC tweeted on July 29.

Repair works of the metre gauge railway at

Repair works of the metre gauge railway at Pipeline Estate, Nairobi on August 19, 2020. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NMG

In Mutindwa and Githurai wooden stalls that hosted makeshift markets adjacent to the railway line were last week flattened to pave way for the refreshment of rail tracks.

At the central railway station in Nairobi, refurbishment works continued including the restoration of the subway and platform, installation of an automatic ticketing system, an extension of the platform to cover the full extent of the station and renovation of the station building.

“The rehabilitation works at the Nairobi Central Station are 65 per cent complete. We are right on track” KRC said in an update last week.

As part of a masterplan of improving commuter train services in Nairobi, the KRC has already acquired the DMUs and five coaches which will service key routes including the Nairobi Central Station to Syokimau, Embakasi village, Ruiru, and Kikuyu.

To support the train services, nine new stations will be built at various locations including Kenyatta University, Umoja, Kibera, Thogoto, Mbagathi Way, Thika, Kitengela, Dagoretti and Strathmore University with a target to increase the number of train commutes from the current 300,000 to three million in a month.

The city will also get a five-kilometre Nairobi to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport line, which will be a dedicated line for commuters who wish to access the airport.

Experts at the Ministry of Transport and Urban Development point out that while the usual locomotives cover 30 kilometres per hour (kph), the new metre gauge DMUs can cover at least 50kph, which is quite fast for rail transport in a city like Nairobi.

Mucemi Gakuru, interim head of the Nairobi Commuter Rail Unit, said the new rail system would bring relief to millions of city dwellers long affected by gridlocks on key roads in Nairobi and supplement the planned bus rapid transport (BRT).

Housing and Urban Development Principal Secretary Charles Hinga in July said a Chinese firm, Stecol Corporation had been awarded a Sh5.6 billion contract to start construction of special lanes for the long-awaited BRT system, which would support high-capacity buses through the Nairobi city centre and Thika highway.

“We signed the contract last week and the contractor is mobilising to commence next month for the first phase covering the corridor from Clayworks to Haile Selassie and then to Kenyatta National Hospital. That should be done after eight months,” the PS told the Business Daily.

Ongoing rehabilitation of the Nairobi Railways

Ongoing rehabilitation of the Nairobi Railways Station on August 15, 2020. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG

The project will comprise more than 100 buses operating on dedicated lanes on the Thika highway through the Nairobi city centre to the Kenyatta National Hospital area. The Chinese firm will demarcate sections of Thika highway to be remodelled to accommodate support facilities such as of boarding stations and footbridges.

The BRT and Nairobi rail system will supplement the existing public service vehicles (PSVs), which often get overwhelmed by demand.

“The PSV will be the feeder network for and will always be part of us,” said Dr Muchemi.

As part of the BRT project, a park-and-ride facility is planned for construction in Kasarani to allow commuters heading to the city centre to leave their vehicles and transfer to a mass transport bus for the remainder of the journey. The existing footbridges on the busy highway will guide the placement of the initial stations for the BRT system.

The new mass transport project would involve dedicating the two innermost lanes of the highway to special high-capacity buses and erecting boarding ramps to ease access to the buses.

The buses will be run by private operators but regulated by the Nairobi Metropolitan Area Transport Authority.

Global data research firm, Kantar recently ranked Nairobi bottom of the 31 key global cities surveyed — pointing to the capital’s limited and frustrating chaotic public transport system infrastructure. Nairobi ranked closely to Sao Paulo (30), Johannesburg (29) and Jakarta at position 28.

“Although people appreciate the environmental need to limit the use of cars for personal transport, they still feel there are reasons that justify using them such as convenience, safety and accessibility,” the Mobility Report reads.

The chaotic public transport system in Nairobi remains a big economic concern with millions of commuters forced to walk long distances each day.

With one of the fastest-growing middle-class in Africa, Nairobi has over the past few years witnessed a sharp transformation into a city of booming retail malls, real estate projects and alongside these developments, a rising number of private cars.

Although most world cities have moved to provide an alternative for non-motorised transport, Nairobi and urban centres in Kenya are generally planned for cars and yet the majority of residents do not own vehicles.

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