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Mass Transit in Kenya: Plans to overhaul the system by 2050 [free access]

March 1, 2021

The existing operational public transport network in Kenya comprises a standard gauge railway (SGR) network, the Nairobi commuter rail network, and bus transport. The country is facing economic losses due to its under developed public transport system and is taking steps to expand and upgrade this system. In 2020 itself, state-owned Kenya Railway Corporation (KRC) rehabilitated more than 800km of rail lines. However, public transport projects have been criticised because of the government’s heavy dependence on external loans to finance these infrastructural projects. Faced with difficulty in repaying its loans due to the current pandemic, the government is looking to renegotiate the terms of loans with lenders.


Current operational network

-          Kenya standard gauge railway (SGR)

The Kenya SGR network is an existing rail system that connects several cities within the country. The projects to expand this network have largely been funded by the Export-Import Bank of China (EXIM Bank of China). For instance, the Mombasa–Nairobi section spanning 609 km was developed at an estimated investment of USD3.6 billion. Of this, 90 per cent of the investment was provided by the EXIM Bank of China and 10 per cent by the Government of Kenya. Further, the Nairobi–Naivasha section was developed at an investment of USD1.5 billion with assistance from the EXIM Bank of China.  


-          Nairobi commuter rail project


The Nairobi commuter rail network commenced operations in 1992. It currently comprises four routes which together span 160 km. Details of the routes are given in Table 1.


Table 1: Nairobi commuter rail network


Intermediate stops

Average daily ridership (passengers)

Ruiru–Nairobi line

Kahawa, Githurai, Mwiki, Maili Saba, Dandora, S. Mtwinda, Makadara


Embakasi Village–Nairobi line

Aviation, Tai Mall, Avenue Park, Quarry, Donholm, Makadara


Kikuyu–Nairobi line

Thogoto, Dagoretti Station, Lenana, Satellite, Kibera, Gatwekera, Mashomoni, Laini Saba


Syokimau–Nairobi line

Imara, Makadara


Source: Global Mass Transit Research


New rolling stock is being added and upgraded to improve operations on the system. In December 2020, KRC began operations of five metre-gauge class 61 diesel multiple units (DMUs) on the commuter rail line to expand the capacity of the line. In March 2020, Serveis Ferroviaris de Mallorca (SFM) signed a USD15million agreement with Kenya’s Ministry of Transport to supply these second-hand DMUs, five coaches, and spare parts. Of these, 11 DMUs have been deployed on the rail network.


-          Bus transport


Kenya has an unorganised bus transport system. Kenya Bus Company (KBC) is the largest bus company. Other major bus companies are Coast Bus (the oldest bus operator in Kenya) and Guardian Bus Company Limited.


Matatus, buses, and mini-buses operate in the country, but Matatus dominate road transport. These services are unregulated and unorganised, and hence lead to chaos. Fares rise when there is high demand or during bad weather.


Figure 1 depicts the licences given to Matatus, buses, and mini-buses in the country.


Figure 1: Licences given to different buses in Kenya (2017)

Source: National Bureau of Statistics, Kenya


App-based services have recently launched operations in Kenya. These services are affordable, have fewer stops, and maintain high quality and safety standards. The apps notify users about the nearest pick-up point, scheduled departure times, and fare prices. Little, the ride-hailing app backed by Kenya’s largest mobile operator Safaricom and Egypt-based Swvl, began piloting bus shuttles in Nairobi in January 2019.The Swvl app allows users to book bus trips using mobile devices. The company was banned briefly in October 2019, but in May 2020, the National Safety and Transport Authority (NTSA) permitted the company to resume its bus-hailing services.


Upcoming plans


Kenya aims to overhaul its entire rail system by 2050. The master plan for the Nairobi commuter rail aims to rehabilitate the commuter rail network and to increase the average daily passenger ridership by 10 times, from 13,000 passengers to 132,000 passengers, by 2022.


In the last five years, the Government of Kenya has shifted its focus to what is said to be the government’s greatest revival projects –restructuring and expanding the country’s expansive railway projects that had remained dormant for more than 20 years.


The first bus rapid transit (BRT) system in Kenya is also planned to decongest Nairobi, the capital city. With the commencement of operations on the Nairobi BRT, the city will become the eighth African city to implement the BRT system after Lagos (Nigeria), Johannesburg (South Africa), Cape Town (South Africa), George and Tshwane (South Africa), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Marrakech (Morocco), and Accra (Ghana).


Kenya SGR expansion


In the future, the SGR network aims to connect cities such as Lamu, Lokichar, Nakodok, and Moyale with the existing network. Further, SGR plans to connect Kenya to the neighbouring countries of Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi.


Nairobi commuter rail expansion and upgradation project


The Nairobi commuter rail expansion and upgradation project is being implemented through a public-private partnership (PPP) between KRC and London-based private infrastructure development trust InfraCo with the aim of decongesting the city and reducing traffic. The entire project will see the rehabilitation of 160 km of the existing rail system within Nairobi and the construction of a new rail line from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) to the Nairobi Central Business District (CBD).


The project is being implemented in three phases:


-          Phase I involves construction of 100 km of network, providing services between Nairobi’s main station and Ruiru, Embakasi Village, JKIA, and Kikuyu. This phase will cost KES16 billion.

-          Phase II will extend the services to Thika, Lukenya, and Limuru.

-          Phase III involves construction of lines to Ngong, Kiserian, and Ongata Rongai to the south; Kiambu to the north; and Ruai to the north-east of Nairobi.            


Details of the JKIA–Nairobi CBD rail line are given in Table 2.


Table 2: JKIA to Nairobi CBD rail line




6 km


JKIA to Nairobi CBD


The new stations will be built using an intermodal concept in synergy with the public service transport system to facilitate ease of use by commuters.



Expected daily ridership

500,000 passengers (one year after completion); 1 million passengers (in the following five years after completion)


Construction is expected to begin in March 2021

Expected date of completion


Source: Global Mass Transit Research


In January 2020, the Government of Kenya approved USD2.5 billion for the upgradation of the commuter rail network.


The governments of Kenya and France signed an agreement in March 2019 for the project. In the same month, Kenya Railways partnered with a consortium of France-based companies to develop the JKIA–Nairobi CBD rail line. The details about the members of the consortium have not been disclosed. Further, eleQtra is also working with Kenya Railways on the project.


In December 2020, the Government of Kenya received a USD125 million loan from the Government of France for the development of the JKIA–Nairobi CBD line and for the upgradation of a 17-km line from the Nairobi Railway Central Station to the Syokimau train terminus. 


Nairobi BRT project


The BRT project is being developed by the Nairobi Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (NaMATA). It involves the development of six corridors. Of these, the three priority routes are JKIA to Likoni, James Gichuru to Rironi, and Bomas Road to Ruiru Road. The other three routes are Ngong Road to Juja, Mama Lucy to T-Mall, and Balozi Road to Imara Road.


Construction is planned to be carried out in two phases. The buses will be run by private operators but will be regulated by NaMATA.


In July 2020, China-based Stecol Corporation secured a KES5.6 billion (USD51.9 million) contract to commence construction of special lanes for the BRT system from the Thika Highway through the Nairobi city centre to the Kenyatta National Hospital (KHN) area.


Funding: The project is expected to cost USD93.6 million. It will receive USD44.85 million from the federal and local governments. Of the total project cost, USD68.26 million will be used for civil works and infrastructure systems and the remaining USD25.3 million will be used to procure 50 buses.


In October 2019, the European Union (EU), the European Investment Bank (EIB), and Agence Française de Développement (AFD) together committed to providing funding of KES23 billion for the development of the BRT. Each European financier will provide between KES5 billion (USD47.94 million) and KES10 billion (USD95.87 million).


Rolling stock: A fleet of over 100 buses, each with a capacity to carry 160 passengers, will be operated on the system. A park-and-ride facility is also planned to be constructed at Kasarani to allow commuters to leave their vehicles and transfer to the BRT system.


Fare system: Contactless smartcards will be used for fare payment. Fare gates will be installed at the stations, which will be equipped with Wi-Fi.


The operationalisation cost is estimated to be KES100 billion.


Cashless ticketing


In January 2021, NTSA selected 29 companies to develop a cashless ticketing system for public service vehicles (PSVs) in the country. The selected companies include Kenya-based Safaricom (a telecom operator), NCBA Bank Kenya, KCB Bank Kenya Limited, Jambopay (an online payment getaway), Cellulant (a digital payments company), and Craft Silicon (a technology solutions provider).


The cashless payment system will enable passengers to pay fare using their mobile phones as well as help the authorities in tracing cases of COVID-19. The procurement process for the new fare payment system was launched in June 2020.


Dependence on external loans: A debt trap?


Transport projects in Kenya have attracted considerable criticism, with several people expressing fears of the country being caught in a debt trap. Almost all the major projects in the country are being financed through external loans. China has been a major financier for all the SGR projects in Kenya, with Chinese companies securing most of the contracts for the rail lines. France is extending loans for the extension and upgradation of the Nairobi commuter rail project.


Due to the current pandemic, the Kenyan parliament’s transport committee stated in a report in September 2020 that the country should renegotiate the terms of the USD3.2 billion loan with China. The pandemic-induced downturn has pushed the country into heavy debt, making it difficult for it to repay its loan.


Key issues


Kenya faces issues in terms of securing project funding and meeting project timelines. For example, the Nairobi BRT project received official approval more than five years ago, but has yet to be implemented. Further, the cost of BRT operationalisation, which is estimated to be KES100 billion, is too high for the government to bear alone, and hence it has decided to allow private players to carry out operations on the system. This will also allow cooperation between the BRT system and the currently operational Matatu system in Nairobi.


The way forward


Traffic congestion has led to huge economic losses for the country. For instance, the distance between JKIA and Nairobi CBD is approximately 20 km. The end-to-end journey time on the route earlier used to be 30 minutes to one hour. Now it takes up to two hours to traverse this route due to heavy traffic on the usually busy Mombasa Road.


To address the problem of extensive urban congestion, the development of a well-established and efficient public transport system is considered imperative for the country. For instance, Nairobi, with a population of about 4.4 million inhabitants, until now has had only an unsafe and inefficient transport system, based on mostly privately owned 14- and 32-seater Matatus. Attempts to revamp the existing bus system have also faced objections from private operators of Matatus.


Although commendable progress has been made in terms of infrastructural development and upgrades in the last five years, meeting project timelines needs to be the key focus area. Reducing dependence on external loans should also be targeted to achieve independence in making decisions related to the country’s infrastructure and transport.


(1 KES [Kenyan Shilling] = 0.01 USD)


(This is Part 1 of a two-part feature. Part 1 focuses on Kenya’s transit expansion and modernisation plans. Part 2 will be released in the Global Mass Transit Monthly issue of April 2021. It will focus on transport developments in the rest of the countries in East Africa.)