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Kenya revives its colonial rail system to meet its modern needs

A private company sees the country's dilapidated railways as an opportunity to make a profit and meet Kenyans needs for faster transportation.

By Correspondent / April 13, 2011

A school boy looks out of the train window as commuters disembark to the industrial area of Nairobi.

Brendan Bannon

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Nairobi, Kenya

This post is part of the Daily Dispatches project chronicling life in Nairobi, Kenya throughout the month of April.

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ON THE 06:40am TO NAIROBI – We pull slowly out of Athi River station, leaving behind the run-down railroad shed that is now home to the Jesus Victory Center and a tinshack kindergarten.

Ahead, an hour-long commute, through the Athi plains once swarming with wildlife, beneath final approach to the international airport, through the smoggy iron roof slums and the industrial area, and into the heart of Nairobi.

“Ah, we love this thing,” smiles Steve Nyahe, 40, a graphic designer, who like most aboard the train used to have to sit cramped in a 14-seat "matatu" minibus taxi to town, stalled in jams and pollution, for two hours or more.

“She keeps time, she takes me to work in less than one hour, she’s cut my travel costs by 50 percent. Who can complain?”

The 6:40 a.m. from Athi River, 17 stops into Nairobi, is one of a raft of new peak time services to and from the city, more than doubling the total from 8 to 18 since March 1.

Passenger numbers have jumped 45 percent since then, to 716,922 last month, according to the privatized firm now running Kenya’s railroads.

More than 2,300 of them use the Athi River service each day – the equivalent of more than 164 squeezed minibus taxis.

Onboard the 6:40 a.m., Patricia Wachira, a customer services executive for an agrochemicals company, sat reading her Bible, the early morning sun streaming through the windows.

“When I heard that they were bringing a train, I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “A neighbor told me it was true, when I first used this route, just a month ago, it was my first time to be on a train.

“It is so different from the matatu, it’s comfortable, there’s no hassle, no loud noise, no jams, no pollution. There was no way I could read my Bible on the matatu. I arrive at work fresh, and it’s quicker. I have an extra hour in my day.”

Beside her, Stella Vanessa, 21, and Tracy Nderitu, 22, colleagues at a real estate agency, shared a vanity mirror to apply their make up.

“It’s great, that’s all I need to say,” said Nderitu. “We needed this thing very much, it’s there in every other country, it was about time we had it here in Kenya. The only question is, why did they wait for so long?”

In fact, revolutionary as taking the train seems to these commuters, the rails they’re riding on are older even than the country of Kenya itself. They are the reason Nairobi exists.

Way back in the late 19th century, ox-drawn wagons were used to ferry raw materials from the interior for export via to ships waiting at Kenya’s coast.

Adventurous British businesses flourishing in neighboring Uganda successfully petitioned the parliament in London to build a rail line to speed up the 900-mile journey.

The equivalent of $394 million was allocated for the audacious project, which would include carving railroads up and down the sometimes 45° escarpments of the Rift Valley that slices through in Kenya’s center.

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