Uganda: Inside Uganda's Passenger Train Service

17 September 2019

Time check is 5:30pm and on a Friday evening, with the final whistle , the passenger train takes off from the Uganda Railways Corporation (URC) head office to Namamve in Mukono District.

Launched in February 2018, the passenger train service has continued to attract huge numbers of passengers because of the horrible traffic jams on Kampala roads, particularly on Kampala-Jinja Highway. The train offers daily passenger service from Namamve, east of Kampala City to the railway headquarters.

Passengers plying the route say it has saved them from the traffic gridlock that often hit Kampala-Jinja Highway.

As it clocks 4pm in the afternoon, the traffic towards the Uganda railway head office begins to increase as passengers swarm to catch the train back home.

Passenger experience

Mr James Nkalubo had never thought of using the train until the closing of of June last year when he realized he had no money to meet his fares to Mukono.

Mr Nkalubo, a phone App developer plying his trade at Mutasa-Kafero plaza in Kampala, who had been an ardent user of the boda boda transport, said she was spending at least Shs15,000 every day.

"Mind you I had for long known boda bodas as my quickest solution each time traffic hit, however, it was becoming so costly for me," Mr Nkalubo said.

Since his first experience over a year ago, he has resorted to the train service. This has since seen him persuade others to join her.

Mr Nkalubo is among hundreds of passengers who have taken to the train services for their daily transport to the eastern part of Kampala.

For Ms Scovia Atyang, a first time passenger, it is a new experience. She walked all the way from St Balikuddembe market to board the train out of a friend's influence.

"I had to walk from Owino just to catch this train. My friend had praised it for being fair, fast and punctual, and I was also told I could reach in just minutes, which is why I won't worry standing for the entire journey even when I am tired," she said.

Moses Kawule, a graphics designer working at Mutasa-Kafero plaza, said it is the punctuality that has driven him to use the passenger train service.

"It never disappoints. I am always assured of being there on time because it sets off and arrives either 10 minutes before or after. I have never gone for any other means since I shifted to Kireka, a Kampala suburb," he said.

Cost, Reliance

At the ticketing office is a calm and composed lady who later introduced herself as Christine. She has perfected her art so well that every passenger who stands at the window waiting for the ticket has something nice to say about her.

On approaching her, about conditions to fulfil before accessing the train, she said: "It is okay sir, that's all you need to pay for the trip regardless of your destination. Please, have yourself a safe trip sir."

The trip from the railway corporation headquarters to Namamve costs a paltry Shs1000, compared to Shs3000 on taxis and about Shs10,000 on average for a boda boda ride from the city centre.

From the ticketing area, the walk-ways lead you through the corridors, down the stair case before reaching the boarding area.

The place is manned by several police officers and staff of URC clad in green and grey outfits. On the rails are five coaches, ready to transit passengers to their final destinations.

Inside the coaches are relatively clean with spongy seats for an old train that has seen the rails for decades.

As the train gains acceleration, dust along the rail take toll on the passengers as the train cruises to its final destination. The situation worsens Kinawataka, Kireka and Bweyogerere, Kampala's suburbs. At these stretches, the dust becomes unbearable, but passengers who have used the service since its inception say they have go accustomed to it.

Mr Mustafa Ntuyo, a regular user said: "My friend, every part of Uganda has dust. So this is very normal in our setting and we are used it and that is why these ladies cover their heads with scarfs."

KCCA officials speak out

The Kampala Lord Mayor, Erias Lukwago, said the passenger train service if expanded will modernise transport in the city. He said currently Kampala is congested and there is need to reorganise the urban transport system to fit in the modern trends.

"We have a crisis in this city. We need an efficient public transport system and passenger train service will help in addressing the crisis," he said.

Mr Lukwago also said there is a plan to introduce light metro service to ease movement within the city. He, however, said with the continued dwindling of funding to the authority, this may not be possible.

The 2015/2019 Kampala City Council Authority (KCCA) strategic plan set out to introduce the Light rails (metro train) services in the city. The plan indicates that there will be public private partnership arrangement where the private sector would finance the establishment of the metro system.

"Introduction of the light rails will complement the other forms of transport and further augment public transport system in the city and its suburbs," the document said.

The Lord Mayor, said government should increase the budget for KCCA to rollout such services to decongest traffic in the city.

At the unveiling of new city transport network in June this year, Mr Jacob Byamukama, the KCCA deputy director in-charge of roads and transport, said KCCA would move towards expanding the passenger train services to other areas of the city and its suburbs. He said the plan for light metro is also being worked on as envisaged in the city transport master plan.

"Currently we are sourcing for funds to ensure that we put these plans to work so that we decongest the city and make it easier for the city dwellers to conduct business," he said.

Plan for upgrade

Railway transport. Mr Stephen Wakasenza, the Chief Concession Officer, says the train transports about 2000 passengers daily to and from Namamve to the city centre.

He said this comes with additional concern for security, for which they employ police officers to keep watch on the passengers.

Mr Wakasenze also said plans are underway to expand the passenger train service to other parts of the city. He said this will help decongest the city and reduce the nascent traffic jams.

"We started this service but the end game is to have other routes. We intend to expand the active route from Namanve to Kampala. Then have a route from Kampala to Portbell. We also plan to have Kampala, Nalukolongo, Kyengera, Bujjuko route open in the next five years," he said.

Overhaul

Mr Wakasenza said once Uganda Railway Corporation is planning to overhaul the old dilapidated coaches and bring in additional coaches to ferry more passengers. This, according to him will add 2,000 more passengers, bring the daily number of passengers to 4,000.

"We need to have a quality every somebody would enjoy service. If you look at the engine and the coaches, the engine can pull nine coaches in total. But as we speak it is pulling only five. So if we had the nine coaches, we would move more people and would be hitting the 4,000 mark." he said.

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