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Kampala city commuter train service

By Nicole Namubiru.

Should KCCA be targeting private car owners instead of the 120,000 that use taxis?

If Kampala Capital City Authority Executive Director, Jennifer Musisi’s plans are not derailed, Uganda’s capital city could get a passenger train service as early as end of March. The passenger commuter train service is being implemented by the Rift Valley Railways (RVR); a private-sector consortium which runs the Kenya-Uganda railway.

In early March, Musisi was in the Kenyan capital Nairobi for meetings with officials of RVR.


Musisi told journalists that the commuter train service is part of an integrated transport master plan to reduce pressure on roads and highways leading into Kampala city.  “Uganda has waited a long time for this experience,” she reportedly said.

Earlier on Feb.5, Musisi had led officials from KCCA, the Ministry of Finance, RVR, and journalists on a test run of the route – a 12km stretch from the main railway station in the City Business District to Namanve; an outlying derelict former rail shunting station in an emerging Industrial Park to the east of the city.

Practical gamble

At the time, KCCA Spokesman Peter Kaujju told The Independent that Namanve had been chosen for a very practical reason; “It is where the railway is intact and not vandalised as it is the case for some spots on the old ancient railway line.”

Such pragmatism is to be seen in almost all aspects of the project.

After the meetings in Nairobi, which also involved officials of the Nairobi Commuter Rail Service, Musisi issued some interesting numbers, including that KCCA/RVR target is to transport 270 passengers daily. Those numbers were starkly different from those supplied by KCCA earlier in February.

At the time, RVR had said the pilot phase; to last one year, would involve five coaches with a capacity of 120 passengers each per journey. That would make an approximation of 600 passengers per trip on board both standing and sitting.

When asked to clarify, KCCA’s Kaujju had told The Independent that KCCA had “mobilised eight coaches with each carrying 120 people”. That would mean 960 passengers daily.

But, as later revealed by RVR sources, the three extra coaches that Kaujju spoke of were to be brought in from Kenya at a later date.

“Apparently, there are five coaches at the station,” the source who often is involved in the discussions told The Independent on condition that their identity is not revealed.

The RVR officials told The Independent that the time schedules when the train will be running were also had not been finalised but would involve morning and evening trips. That is, two trips in the morning from Namanve to Kampala and two in the evening from Kampala to Namanve. Making them four trips daily with 2400 passengers transported daily.

The officials said there were likely to be stops at Namboole in Bweyogerere, Kireka, and Nakawa. These are the common stop-over and pick-up places for most city commuters and are between three and two kilometres apart along the railway.  City dwellers are excitedly looking forward to new train service. For some of them, riding the train is a tempting adventure they cannot wait to try out.

But for others; like Grace Nakimbugwe, a trader, the concern is on the reduced time the journey to and from Kampala will now require. “I will not have to hustle with the stress of carrying my bulky merchandise in the taxi,” Nakimbugwe says, “I often get into arguments with the conductors and I find this frustrating as I have to make way for people getting on or off all the time at the several stop-overs made by the taxi.”

Beating jam

The Kampala-Namanve railway line runs almost parallel to the Kampala-Jinja highway to the east of the city which most transit traffic from neighbouring Kenya to Rwanda and DR Congo uses.

In the morning peak hour, fuel tankers, heavy import and export goods trailers, and numerous buses, taxis, and private car jostle for space on the narrow two-lane highway into the city. The result is a long bumper-bumper traffic snarl stretching over 25kms from Kampala to Mukono. The evenings are worse as traffic entering the city and leaving is chock-a-blocked. That is the jam that Musisi wants to break.

But she is attempting a mission – how to get motorised traffic in and out of Kampala conveniently- that has plagued city administrators for decades.

Musisi’s intervention comes a time when the problem has more than doubles as the city population has swollen to 1.7 million people and .In 2012, Kampala the British broadcaster, BBC, feature Kampala among the “10 monster traffic jams from around the world”.

In 2010, a study to implement a Bus-Rapid Transport Service in the city pointed out that the Kampala-Jinja route had the biggest number of passengers;120,000, per day. In 2007, a World Bank study estimated that Kampala was served by 8000 14-seater mini-buses. That number has most likely expanded if one looks at the so-called Greater Kampala Metropolitan Area; which is the central urban planning area. The GKMA is a 20km area radiating from the city centre and includes parts of the surrounding districts of Wakiso and Mukono. A more recent study has noted that up to 70% of Kampala commuters walk to work and only 14% use taxis. Most of the walking commuters would love to see affordable, available, and convenient transport in the city.  The BRT study estimated that passenger traffic on Jinja Road will have hit 700,000 by 2030.

Park and ride

On the question of cost, Kaujju said the fare for a return journey on the commuter train would be Shs2800 (Approx. US$1). The same distance currently costs between Shs2000 and Shs3000 by matatu taxi. The variation in fare depends on time of day and volume of passengers. Peak hour rates are often higher. So why would the KCCA train service set out to charge higher fares than the taxis?

“The initial aim for this project is KCCA’s bid to de-congest the city and not to give cheaper transportation as some anticipated,” an official told The Independent.

Under the plan, instead of targeting to persuade commuters away from taxi, the KCCA plan is to persuade private car owners to ditch their rides and hop onto the train.

“If we have effective public transport system, people will park their cars and hope onto the train and the buses which are coming,” Kaujju said.

Kaujju explained that as part of the plan, a Park-and-Ride facility is being built at Namanve. When The Independent visited Namanve, there was no sign of Park-and-Ride facility being built. But that is not the point. Jennifer Musisi and her KCCA team have built a reputation of delivering on projects they promise. The bigger challenge will be getting private car owners to ditch them for the trains.

The high ticket price for the railway ride might, therefore, have more to do with the high costs RVR will incur on the service that on the Park-and-Ride strategy. After all, the park facility will obviously not been free of charge.

As the number crunching continues, it is not clear how 270 passengers daily, each paying Shs280, can financially sustain a city commuter train service.

That is partly why the taxi drivers whose PSVs clog the city roads and are in Musisi’s cross hairs as she strives to decongest Kampala have also been doing their calculation and are not worried. Richard Ssentumbwe is one of them.

“I see a ray of hope that business for us will not be ruined all the time,” he told The Independent, “This train will take most of our customers. It will be competitive. But since the trains will move at specific intervals as will be set, this may not be true at all times.”

In other words, it is not clear that that the proposed for commuter train will decongest the city roads. At its proposed fare, it might even fail to get passengers.

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