•One of the major lessons learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic is that transport systems must adapt quickly to change.
• The government also needs to respond to this pandemic appropriately
The Covid-19 pandemic continues to have a major ripple effect on the transport sector and on railways as well .
One of the biggest impacts has been the lack of passenger transport demand following the March suspension of the Madaraka Express passenger service as part of the government’s containment measures. On the other hand, freight trains remained in operation to meet the immediate challenges posed by the pandemic and keep the essential services running. Notably, the Madaraka Express freight trains were used to transport medical supplies and related equipment within the region.
But the good news is that following the resumption of Madaraka Express passenger service on July 13, the trains have transported an average of 1,030 passengers a day or 95 per cent of the available 50 per cent capacity, indicating a high demand. As of July 29, Afristar had transported 17,502 passengers, only 16 days after the resumption of the passenger service.
There is no denying that sustainability of the Madaraka Express during and post Covid-19 is dependent on the wellbeing of passengers and staff. As such, Kenya Railways and Africa Star Railway Operation Company, the operator of Madaraka Express, are abiding by the protocols issued by the ministries of Health and Transport. For instance, Afristar deploys 10 coaches (eight economy and two first-class) daily with a one-way capacity of 50 per cent. An additional coach is added for passengers presenting with Covid-19 symptoms.
While this has been the case, lessons learnt during the pandemic slowdown call for a new paradigm of mobility. In a report titled Covid-19 impact on transport: An essay from the Railways’ Systems Research Perspective, the European Rail Research Network of Excellence says when re-thinking the near future of rail, it will be necessary to provide safe, independent compartments in which a small number of passengers will be able to travel and social distance.
“Because of the composition of passengers’ wagons, the adaptation of the layout regarding passengers’ seats will be fast and efficient. Rail will also provide a cost-efficient transport mode in relation to the new requirements on health controls, as it will be possible to implement security controls that will be smooth and fast, safeguarding both passengers and crew prior to their access to the train station. Special focus will be placed on the new requirements on deep cleaning and sanitisation of the wagon between each new journey”, the report says.
Indeed, one of the major lessons learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic is that transport systems must adapt quickly to change. A case in point is the Madaraka Express passenger service that was affected by government directives — the 60 per cent seat occupancy rate, the national curfew and the cessation of movement into and out of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kwale, Kilifi and Mandera counties.
To ensure the disruptions do not result in diminishing the gains made earlier, the operator will constantly engage various stakeholders, including Kenya Railways, which will periodically develop prudent commercial decisions to keep the passenger service afloat.
Afristar has also continued to leverage technology and staff skills to provide safe and reliable services. For instance, train dispatchers use an advanced centralised traffic control to manage track use, ensure trains are routed safely and efficiently, and ensure the safety of staff.
It is also noteworthy that whereas other transport operators have hiked their fares to compensate for reduced capacity, Madaraka Express passengers continue to pay the same fares as set by Kenya Railways.
The government also needs to respond to this pandemic appropriately by not only minimising the short-term disruptions to transport linkages, but also viewing the crisis as an opportunity to revisit and reset the best practice in railway passenger transport operations. According to the World Economic Forum Covid-19 Action Platform, better integration of passenger and freight transport will ensure the entire mobility system is more resilient and more sustainable after Covid-19. Integration will require taking a fresh look at the planning of cities and infrastructure capacity as well as new collaborations.
Be that as it may, the Covid-19 crisis has already changed people’s transport behaviours in dramatic ways, with large reductions in public transport use. However, evidence from previous crises shows that in the immediate aftermath of crisis events, transport behaviours will change as people reassess the costs and benefits of different transport modes.
Decision-making will be partly driven by people’s perceptions of risks, regardless of whether such perceptions are well founded or not.
But given the resilience of and key milestones achieved by Madaraka Express within the last three years, it will remain the preferred mode of transport. The milestones include the launch of the Nairobi-Mombasa passenger train in May 2017, the launch of the inter-county passenger service in November 2017, the inauguration of Phase 2A passenger service by President Uhuru Kenyatta in October 2019 and the celebration of safely operating the Madaraka Express service for 1,000 days.
The author is a Communications Adviser, Afristar