The Nozomi bullet train is the centrepiece and pride of the Shinkansen railway service, which connects all the key cities in Japan. On a normal trip, it can attain speeds of upto 300km per hour, meaning that if it were in Kenya, it would cover the distance between Nairobi and Nakuru in 30 minutes flat. The distance between Tokyo, the Japanese capital, and Hiroshima is all of 894 kilometres. The Shinkansen train traverses that distance in four hours and one minute. It is that punctual.
As such, a commuter can estimate, to the minute, the time it will take to reach a destination of his choice. Every detail of a journey is plotted down to a T, including the time the train will spend at each station. As a result, although the greater Tokyo metropolitan area has 36 million people, each one of them keeps time all the time.
What the Japanese trains have done is to make distance meaningless. Unlike say, Nairobi, where workers are under pressure to live as close to the capital as possible so as to beat traffic, in Tokyo, one can find accommodation in any of its 23 wards and still keep time for appointments all day every day. This has improved the efficiency of the population, meaning that the hours ordinarily lost in traffic jams in places like Nairobi are put to good use in Tokyo. Over time, this has an impact on national productivity and progress.
For Kenya to embark on its journey towards building a similar society, it will need to complement the new standard gauge railway trunk line with subsidiary lines, served by lighter trains to reduce population pressure along Thika Road and the key road arteries in the capital.
Secondly, before Japan was connected by its elaborate network of roads and railways, some parts of the island were really remote, to use the words of one professor from Hiroshima University. The building of the roads and railways erased the word “remote” from the Japanese vocabulary. It became possible for a citizen in any part of Japan to travel with ease, comfort and speed to any other part. If Kenya were to adopt this model in the medium and long term, two things will happen. First, the population pressure on the belt astride the Mombasa-Kisumu highway will ease, and the middle class will disperse to other areas which are served adequately by both road and rail. This is how modern cosmopolitan societies are built.
The second advantage will be that the territorialism that has held Kenya back will become a thing of the past. Roads and railways make a place cosmopolitan. They also render the word “stronghold” meaningless. Infrastructure turns inward-looking locations into melting pots of culture and other social influences. Indeed, they also change the language of the location. If in doubt, visit Kitengela or even Ruaka.
One of the most curious trends in Kenya has been the appreciation of the value of land. The new railway now has the potential to disperse this value over a wider geographical area. Anyone who owns land at any point between the Mombasa and Nairobi termini can convert it for residential use and still find takers as long as there is a road to the nearest station. Besides redistributing and mixing the population, the SGR should, over time, ease demand for land in the metropolis. For this to happen at an accelerated rate, the service lines need to branch out to all the compass points. One of the advantages of this is that Tanzanians who live close to the Kenyan border can use Kenya as their route to the rest of the world.
For the new line to make greater economic sense nationally, therefore, there is need to connect it not just with other local urban centres but also with the rest of East Africa and, indeed, the world. With greater connectivity in the region, companies like Kenya Airways can leverage this enhanced mass movement of goods and people to increase its carrying capacity by feeding off the railway system. This, again, can complement Kenya’s tourism industry as the SGR train will be travelling through the Tsavo, promising easier connections to resorts in the coast and further down to Mt Kilimanjaro and the Mara. Indeed, one of the selling points of the Shinkansen line is that the trains travel close to Mt Fiji, itself an enigmatic attraction for tourists from all over the world.
The train infrastructure may have come from China but nothing stops Kenya from borrowing the superstructure from Japan.
Ng’ang’a Mbugua is the editor of the ‘Saturday Nation’.