James Miringu, a 52-year-old, has mixed feelings as the engines roar to life, paving the way for his maiden journey from Miritini Railway Station in Mombasa to Nairobi aboard the first class Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) passenger train.
He belongs to a group of Kenyans with unpleasant memories of riding the old and rickety wagons, but which came with some benefits.
James, who once travelled from Mombasa to Nairobi using the old locomotives, says that new train is faster with no delays compared to previously when travellers could wait for up to four hours before they departed and sometimes another 20 hours to reach their destination.
“If my memory serves me well, on that day in October 1988, we left Mombasa at 7pm in the evening and arrived in Nairobi at 8am in the morning. This one is faster and efficient compared to the old locomotives whose services were often associated with delays, unpredictability and costly breakdowns,” he says.
But compared to the older trains, James who travels along the route at least twice a week transporting his goods to Tanzania through Mombasa says the Madaraka Express first class train is less comfortable, the sleeper cabin is tiny and the food that is served is not so appealing.
“The first class cabin used to have a room for each passenger complete with a warm comfortable bed and a toilet,” he says.
When it comes to meals, he says that the ‘‘Lunatic Express’’ used to serve a complete three-course dinner. The red-leather-lined first-class dining coach served hot tomato or onion soup as starter and the main meal was ugali, kales and Molo lamb with mint sauce rice served on plates embossed with the logos of the East Africa Railways and Harbours Corporation.
For dessert, passengers were treated to Kenyan cheese, biscuits and fruit such as pineapples and oranges. For breakfast, they served hot tea, coffee, boiled vegetables and rice as well as beef stew. Today, first class passengers on Madaraka Express are served juice, sodas, water, sandwiches and fruits.
Travellers can carry their own alcohol on board or buy from the restaurant—raising concerns over managing unruly and drunk passengers.
For about Sh750, a passenger can buy a packet of juice, a sandwich and one Tusker beer—a price that James says is high.
In terms of tickets, he notes that the ‘‘Lunatic Express’’ charged Sh1,000 for first class compared to Sh3,000 for Madaraka Express.
Unlike the fixed seats in the old train, Madaraka Express has four seats in every row in the first-class coach. There is also a small table for every passenger and a head rest.
All the seats face in front but can be adjusted to face one another, if travelling as a group. The beauty of the train is the extra legroom. A 6’3 man can sit comfortably while working on the portable table—better than when flying on economy class in an aeroplane or even the luxury buses. Passengers can also charge their phones.
Inside the Madaraka Express, there are also sleepers with beds that can accommodate up to four people. The sleeping lounge is not for all travellers as previously thought.
‘‘The sleeping lounge is for emergencies, for the sick and pregnant. It is not available for the ordinary passengers,’’ Atanas Maina the managing director, Kenya Railways said.
Those using the sleepers can adjust the volume of music from their coaches.
As the Madaraka Express gears to compete with low-budget airlines, nostalgic passengers will miss the old laissez-faire crawling trains in which tourists could look out of the window and see the picturesque villages in a way they cannot from aeroplanes and buses.
Pheroze Nowrojee, a top Nairobi lawyer, says now that the SGR is running, government officials should see how best to utilise the old railway.
‘‘It is a national asset, worth substantial millions of shillings and we must not let it go waste. We must not think that now that we have a new Mercedes 180 — (not a Mercedes 450)— we must throw away our old 1985 Toyota Corolla,” he says.