By Silas Nyanchwani
In the autumn of 2011, I was part of a dozen students from the University of Nairobi’s Literature department that were taken to Germany on a sponsored tour by DAAD(German Academic Exchange Service). It was brief tour, but the most astonishing thing was that schedule that was sent to us a month early was honoured to the last second.
The tour took us to three cities in Germany: Hamburg, to the North, Berlin, in the middle, and Dresden, on the far East. We shuttled through the cities using a train and what an incredible experience that was. Germany has arguably one of the best public transport networks in the world and punctuality is an absolute necessity to Germans, it can be annoying. There was nothing else I enjoyed or envied about Germany, more than that public transport. It is perfect to the second. I have also lived in the States, New York no less, but the New York subway is a too archaic, chaotic and virtually dysfunctional on weekends. But you still appreciate the days when it works, however bad. I will take the messy New York subway over our matatus any day.
The resource that white people utilize the best is time. Time is greater than gold and every precious mineral that gets people killed in DRC. In the West and in deed in all the first world countries, people can control their time, hence their destiny in life. Productivity levels are ten times higher, than Africa because the public transport is reliable, and security is assured.
This morning, I missed the 7.08 train from Imara Daima by 2 minutes. The Syokimau train is one of the lesser acknowledged functional things in the country. Had I made it to the station in time, I would have been in the CBD by 7.35 a.m. I missed it, and I had to walk to the bus station at GM. There isn’t even a bus station at GM, on the lane that goes to town, Matatus have to jostle on the sidewalks in acrobatic fashion, all the while in running battles with the police. It took me 20 minutes to get there (good exercise though), but for missing the train, I paid with an hour of my life in traffic. The other option was to wait for the 9.15 train.
Anyway, I elected to use a matatu, you can’t do anything meaningful in a matatu that is playing ragga. Or Maina Kageni (I’m a fan of Maina Kageni by the way), but the noise is really annoying, the seats too crumpled, and the level of comfort: zero.
Those who use public transport cannot control their time. The rains, the traffic, the unpredictable manner of the traffic police (you never know when they will arrest you for not putting on a seatbelt in a matatu that has none), matatus changing routes without notice, leaving in the middle of nowhere. The vagaries of public transport are endless, carjackers, pickpockets anyone! You can never be flexible in your approach to life.
But imagine if we had a light rail in Nairobi and traffic was virtually non-existent. The Imara Daima train carries about 1200 people a trip. Those are at least thirty, 36-seater minibuses, or 85 small 14-seater minivans. Imagine if we opened more routes, Kikuyu, Thika Road, Donholm, Kibera. We bought new or refurbished the old coaches. Make the railway system clean, reliable, and they work all day and night!
Nearly 75 per cent of the people with cars, will not use their cars if a)the train system worked and the coaches were super clean, b)security was guaranteed c) the trains worked 24-hours.
When people can control their time, they become more productive. You can take extra jobs. Someone like me can report to my workplace on Mombasa Road, key in the 6 hours, hop into a train go to a college I teach, key in the 4 hours, and hop onto another train go check on my businesses, or my consulting, or enjoy a drink in town.
Imagine many people who have to do one job, because movement in Nairobi during the day is practically impossible. How much talent is bottled up in the traffic jams, or holed in offices, way after the working hours, Facebooking…
If we built a light-rail in Nairobi before the SGR, it would have been ten times more useful and would have added as much as 12 billion a year (probably more into our economy). A study by IBM a few years ago, showed that we lose as much as Sh 1 billion a month in traffic jams (fuel, pollution, time wastage, arriving at work already tired and unproductive). I think it is more.
If I leave work at 5 p.m, with hopes of getting to town in time for a few drinks with friends, but spend two hours between South C and Nyayo stadium, only to get to town three hours later three things will happen: a) my friends will probably give up and leave, b) when I get to town, we will only grab one drink and go home to our wives c), we have spent less than we would have spent if it took me 20 minutes to town.
If I get to town by 5.30, and say we are four of us, we can have 4-5 drinks each so as to leave by 8 p.m. But if you get to town by 7 p.m, you will have one or two. So the VAT the government would have made from the consumption is lost. The bar will not make as many sales to warrant job creation. Expand this to other sectors of the economy.
In short, when people move, monies changes hands. When people move faster, money changes hands faster, and the economy grows even faster.
Now to the SGR. Thankfully, despite being scandalously overpriced, and we will pay for it for the rest of our lives, I’m thankful. Part of the reason, I have not been to Mombasa in like 7 years, is that I’m freaking afraid of buses, and I can’t afford a flight. But a train is a good incentive for me to travel to Coast, as frequently as I can. And many will find travel because of the ease and reliability.
The coaches were underwhelming, when they unleashed them on us. Diesel locomotives in 2017 is a bit anachronistic, but I’m hopeful, we will upgrade in the future. Like Jaindi Kisero in today’s nation, and Macharia Gaitho yesterday, I support the SGR, despite graft and other queries. As Jaindi suggests from Naivasha, it should go through Maasai Mara, through Kalenjin land, to Kisii, to Luo Nyanza and Luhyia, and I dare say that we should also connect to the further North and North Eastern. Other communities in Kenya “should also eat from land compensation deals” as Kisero aptly puts it.
I really would have loved to see in my lifetime, a time when I can hop into a train and go to Turkana, Marsabit, Lamu and every far corner, nook and cranny of this country. Traveling by road is restricted to necessity. Air transport in Africa is prohibitive. Train transport makes travel more fun.
Whereas, there was plunder during the Kibaki era, at least there was some level of quality in the delivery of projects. Thika Road, going to Kisumu via Nakuru-Kericho is a pleasurable experience. Even in Kisii, we got some good roads and a few more places in Kenya. SGR, we got a raw deal, but for now, it is an historic occasion, let us not rain on Uhuru and Ruto’s parade.
Its economic benefits will be felt, in the days to come as long as the rich mercenaries who own trucks do not conspire to kill it like they killed Kenya Railways.
Even the people who oppose it, will in the end see, it was not an entirely useless exercise. Long after Uhuru and Ruto are happily gone, we will still use it for the next 100 years.
It is something to be happy about, even if we got a raw deal.
It is better than those painting the sky blue projects that were the stuff of Goldenberg and Anglo-Leasing.