Six months since Kampala's pilot train service launched, JONATHAN KAMOGA finds that it just may be proving doubting Thomases wrong.
Musa Kiguli was tired of paying high taxi fares, only to end up in sickening, time-consuming traffic jams; and on December 7, 2015, he had a chance to try something different.
“This was like a turning point for me; as soon as the train started operating, I made a decision to use it to and from work every day,” says the clinical officer who lives in Seeta and works in Kampala.
Kiguli’s decision won him both praise and favours from his bosses, who were happy with his sudden respect for punctuality. I am talking to Kiguli at 6:30am on a cold Wednesday morning, just outside the main building of Namanve train station waiting to board the first train that leaves for Kampala at exactly 7:00am.
The five-coach train is parked a few metres away, with technicians pulling plugs and tightening bolts. About 20 other passengers are waiting near the ticket office while others are buying their tickets.
About ten minutes later, we are in one of the coaches; Kiguli, who constantly glances at his watch, sits next to me on my right. In a coach meant for 200 passengers, we are about 150. With all the seats taken, some people have to stand.
“I have managed to save a lot on transport, taxis are expensive. At least I can save about Shs 2,000 a day when I use the train,” Kiguli says.
He tells me about the corporate types he finds on the train. These, mostly from Mukono, drive to Namanve each morning, park their vehicles somewhere, and jump onto the train.
“Most people think that using this train is for only poor people but I tell you we move with lawyers, civil servants and other big people,” Kiguli says as the train sets off for Kampala.
Our first stop is at Namboole stadium at 7:10am; a few people dash off as a few more jump on – all within barely 60 seconds – before we set off again. Six minutes later, we stop in Kireka, again for one minute.
“We are going to be in Kampala just in 45 minutes unlike the people who are using the taxis; they have to meet traffic jam and of course they will be delayed,”Kiguli tells me, “Since I have to be at work by 8:30am, I think the best means to help me be there on time is this train.”
Not that it’s all smooth sailing. Kiguli, for instance, hates survival-for-the-fittest commotion as passengers push and shove to enter the train.
“My wife was injured the first time she used the train, the steps of the coaches are of a rare form and are dangerous,” Kiguli says.
As a first-time train passenger, I am nervous. With each bend the train makes, my heart skips a beat. The breeze sweeping in through the open windows joins efforts with the three ceiling fans to make it feel rather cold. I am not the only first-timer here. Seated opposite me is Gertrude Nabukenya, fresh from university heading to town for a job interview at exactly 8:00am.
“I am sure I will be there on time, unlike if I used a taxi. I was afraid of using the train all along and I must admit I am still a little scared.” She says.
Two brief stops at Nakawa and Makerere University Business School by 7:35am see a few more people off the train as we continue to Kampala train station. At 7:48am, our arrival at the station is announced by the continuous hooting of the train. Within five minutes, all the coaches, with combined capacity of 100 passengers, are empty as passengers hurriedly walk out to get on with the day’s business.
The train will stay here until 5:30pm, when it makes its second journey back to Namanve.
This one-year pilot study train service is run by Uganda Railways Corporation and Rift Valley Railways in partnership with Kampala Capital City Authority. Mr Brian Lugwire, the project manager at Uganda Railways, attributes the increasing passenger numbers to intensive marketing – and presumably a good job by its staff of 20 train attendants and cashiers.
“We got a marketing consultant firm on board that did most of the adverts and maybe our own people who have marketed it,” Lugwire says.
He adds that they are receiving passengers from different spheres of life and, therefore, are working on providing means suitable for all.
“We are in talks with Namboole stadium management to help us provide parking space for our clients who need to park their cars and use the train. We have written to them and we await their reply,” he says.
At 5:00pm, I am at Kampala train station to catch the train back to Namanve. Lugwire says this second trip mostly carries middle-class people leaving work. It is not as packed as the morning one, but the numbers are good. Most passengers get seats, although a few are standing as we leave at 5:30pm.
At the defined stopovers, a few get off as others get on. It is a quiet and relatively-smooth ride to Namanve, unlike the bumpy and tense morning shift. A few passengers order drinks like sodas and water on the train, and there is a toilet on board. We reach Namanve at 6:18pm, two minutes after the scheduled arrival time.
After a few minutes of clearing the cabins and switching engines, we are on our way back to Kampala to pick those waiting to take the last shift that leaves at 7:50pm. At the Kampala station, hundreds are waiting for the train: men, women, boys and girls. Some are on the metallic seats in the waiting area. Others are standing by the track, train tickets in hands .
Christine Nakkazi, a 26-year-old hairdresser, is sitting with her mother Stella Atenyi. Both are from work at their family salon in Kisenyi and are heading home to Mukono.
“I really hate the fact that the train station is very far away from the city centre,” Nakkazi tells me. “You have to walk all the way from Kisenyi to here if you do not have money for a boda boda.”
Her mother suggests that life would have been much easier if a passenger spot was fixed in the very heart of Kampala city beyond the train station to help passengers avoid boda boda costs or the long walks to the station.
“It would be even much better if the train goes past Namanve to Mukono,” the old woman says “Most of us who use it daily come from that side,”.
However Lugwire says this is just a pilot study and they are weighting both the positives and the negatives to evaluate it at the end of the one year.
“The marketing firm we hired is also responsible for collecting complaints of the customers so we can work on them after the pilot study,” he says.
As usual, the struggle to get a seat starts as soon as the train arrives. The merciless pushing at the entrance doesn’t spare me this time. Without any journalistic immunity, I instinctively push a few bodies aside – who push back.
“All of us are going to enter, I don’t see the reason why you people should push yourselves,” a female voice behind me shouts.
“Yes all of us will enter but some of us will be seated while others are standing,” says a voice from inside, its owner probably already seated .
By the time I get in, all the seats are taken. I have to stand all the way. Having been on all the shifts in the day, the last one is undoubtedly my best. From the look of things, it carries the biggest number of people in the day. A quick head count in my coach suggests we are at least 180 talkative passengers.
Uganda Cranes, Besigye and Museveni dominate conversations, while the quiet passengers lock their tired faces to their mobile phone screens. It is 7:40pm and we have been in the stationary train for 30 minutes now. Many passengers complain because we are not setting off. Others standing with me are already getting tired.
On my right is Justus Okello, a 65-year-old Luweero war veteran, who can’t get anyone to offer him a seat.
“I am from hospital. See, here are my malaria drugs,” Okello says, showing me a white paper bag containing various tablets.
Looking around, I see a wall notice about seats reserved for pregnant women and old people. I approach the young man sitting directly below the notice and explain Okello’s situation and why he needs to give up his seat for the old man.
“Who told him to come in late? Let him stand,” the boy replies.
Just then, at 7:58pm, the train hoots, and we crawl out of the station.
“Is this the speed at which this thing travels?” a woman asked her neighbour who answers jokingly in the affirmative. However a few seconds later, the train gains speed, making the usual stopovers.
Strangely, I feel quietly proud each time the train crosses the road with vehicles stuck in traffic. Quite many passengers alight at Namboole, giving me a seat next to two girls in their senior six vacation. Mariam and Jamillah Ahmed are going to Namanve and have never used the train before but the events of the day forced the sisters to.
“We dropped our money in town, luckily enough we remained with Shs 3,000,” Mariam says. “Because the taxis were asking for Shs.2,500 from each of us, we decided to use the cheaper train.”
They are surprised that many people use the train which they have always ignored. At 8:40pm, the train, nearly empty, grinds to a halt at Namanve, where it will stay till tomorrow morning. As I walk down a dark road to the Kampala-Jinja highway to pick a taxi home, my mind flashes back to last December.
Not many gave the train a chance when it launched. Indeed, many people still think no one uses the train in Kampala. But today, from clinical officer Musa Kiguli who braves the morning cold, hospital patient Justus Okello, to desperate sisters Mariam and Jamillah, I have travelled with happy train users. For helping them to save time and money, and avoid stressful traffic jams, this train is a blessing.