Finally, a train to get us to the city centre and back

Saturday November 03 2012

Public transportation has got to be one of the greatest inventions. Every country owes it to their citizens to build a city that’s big enough to require it. Plane, train, automobile and boat- doesn’t matter which form of mechanised locomotion. It should be a human right to experience modern mass transit, children should demand it of their parents and voters of their politicians. Because it is formative to spend time in close, confined spaces with complete strangers hurtling through the limbo of transit. Negotiating body space and eye contact is character forming. Weighing in on discussions that you have been eavesdropping on expands your world view. Sniffing armpits might make you care about basic sanitation rights. This is the stuff of democracy!

Dar es Salaam, home to four and a half million people — about a tenth of the country in conservative estimates, got its first commuter train this week. I haven’t seen anything this exciting in transportation since I gawped all the way from Nairobi to Thika, looked at waterfalls, then gawped all the way back to Nairobi on a gazillion-lane highway so shiny and new you can’t look at it directly. That piece of civil engineering sets a high standard for East African cities, but I am hopeful that my first ride on the new urban line will render me just as giddy with delight.

Of course, this isn’t our first public transportation initiative. Dala dalas abound and run themselves efficiently enough, but buses aren’t exciting in and of themselves. On the larger scale we do have the planes and trains and boats but, we know how this tends to go here. It starts with smiles and ribbon cutting and ends in court cases and special parliamentary investigative committees.

Why, just the other day I heard a radio advertisement for our thoroughly defunct national carrier Air Tanzania — affectionately dubbed Any Time Cancellation Limited because that’s the most polite thing we could come up with. “The Wings of Kilimanjaro?” Sometimes my government’s sense of humour is quite inappropriate.

We have been teased for more than 10 years with the promise of the Dar Rapid Transit System (DART), and to be fair there have been some visible advances in that direction, including construction. But for whatever reason the scheme has so far stubbornly refused to bear fruit. Which is why the new train is so surprising: we’re simply not used to being provided with a pragmatic solution to our congestion problem at such speed. Be assured that we Bongolanders shall be thrilled with our new toy until the pickpockets and the filthy floors and the overcrowding and the sexual harassment and the line-jumpers and the undependable schedule and the constantly malfunctioning equipment suck the joy out of it.

The timing of our new Ubungo line launch is, well, timely. We have been suffering from one of our periodic and inexplicable fuel shortages at the moment, complete with the usual conflicting information from those involved in the business. While they point fingers at each other, at least the hardworking folks benefitting from the Ubungo line will be able to get right into the centre of town and back. Those of us who live on the other side of this sprawling city remain unlucky. We’ll still be stuck in traffic, staring moodily at the irritants who are slow to take off because they’re driving under the influence of a mobile phone.


But we will live in hope. As it is, there are already noises about more train services being offered in the future. The way we do things here, it is highly unlikely that new tracks are going to be laid down. The Ubungo train service itself is a bit of creative problem solving: old train engines and carriages were rehabilitated and given a quick spit and polish. Technically there isn’t anything new per se other than the inspiration to put people on the train, but it’s the very simplicity of the initiative that makes it pretty much brilliant.

Which means we have now been appeased somewhat, and can continue to wait for the maybe-never appearance of the rapid transit bus system. And this does go some ways towards making up for the last time we had a “brilliant” idea to ease congestion. We must be the only place which has a three lane main road, in defiance of logic of practicality.

Elsie Eyakuze is an independent consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report, E-mail: [email protected]