It is 7.30 am on a chilly Wednesday morning and we’ve just left our Nation Centre newsroom in Nairobi with my colleagues. We are headed to Syokimau to board the new standard gauge railway (SGR) passenger train to Mombasa.
As we approach Haile Selassie Avenue round-about photojournalist Salaton Njau notices the old locomotives at the Nairobi Railway Station.
“Nobody will ever use these old trains again,” he quips about the engines associated with delays, unpredictability and costly breakdowns in Kenya’s public transport.
His sentiments probably represent those of a generation of Kenyans who have unpleasant memories of riding old and rickety wagons in the years before Kenya Railways services all but came to a grinding halt.
On Mombasa Road, a heavy traffic snarl-up slows our journey to a near-stop. A foreigner could be forgiven for thinking that a heavy tanker has just overturned ahead.
But, it’s just the usual traffic jam on Mombasa Road.
It’s around 8.10 am and I’m beginning to get worried that we will arrive late at the Syokimau Train Station.
We had been warned by our colleagues in the newsroom the previous day that for us to catch the Madaraka Express, we have to be at the station at least 30 minutes before departure time.
“You develop one side of the economy, something else crops up on the other end. This is a tricky balancing act,” remarks NTV colleague Dann Mwangi, as we approach a diversion to the Syokimau station.
He is referring to the emerging competition for low-cost airlines such as Jambojet and bus operators on the Nairobi-Mombasa route in light of the introductory Sh700 fare announced by President Kenyatta during the launch of the SGR train service.
Since the launch, the two Madaraka Express trains have been departing daily from both directions, offering a four-and-a-half-hour non-stop connection between the country’s two major cities. More than 7,000 passengers have used the train to date.
At 8.40 a.m., we arrive at the Syokimau station. We are a bit tense because we are late.
At the main entrance of the station to the left, I see passengers rushing towards the ticketing point. Despite them running late, some passengers are busy taking selfies from different angles instead of checking in. The station is a beehive of activity. In my memory, I can only compare it to the Cairo Metro in Egypt.
Since its launch in 1987, the metro has become the most important means of transport in the Egyptian capital. After all, there is nothing better than moving from one place to the other in the largest city in the Middle East without getting stuck in traffic for hours or dealing with the hefty prices of taking a cab. An Egyptian taxi can even charge you double price if you can’t speak Arabic. I have been a victim.
“Mrefu harakisha, hii kitu ikifika masaa yake ya kutoka itakuacha tu hapa ukiona (Tall man hurry up, this train will just leave you here when it’s time to depart),” the mean-looking policeman tells me as he ushers us in to the station.
Here, we are subjected to the same security checks as those at the airports. I overhear some passengers with first class tickets complaining that they have been made to stand in the same queue as the ones with economy class tickets.
After the security check, the attendants, some whom are trained in Chinese hospitality, guide us to the boarding area. Only ticket holders are allowed to board and at exactly 9 a.m., we depart, heading to the coastal city of Mombasa on our maiden journey.
We take at least five minutes to settle down in the train. As NTV’s Robert Gichira takes out his camera from his bag to film, I can hear curious passengers whispering at the back, “These must be journalists.”
Their whispers soon fade as an announcement comes on.
“Dear passenger, for safety purposes, you are reminded not to lean on the door when the train is moving. Do not smoke, do not carry any firearm, throw your litter in the dustbin, do not carry any explosives and kindly make sure that your bag is well placed in the luggage carrier,” says the announcer.
This is followed almost immediately by a song by Kenny Rogers, The Gambler. It makes me feel as if I’m in a plane, as the train snakes its way through the picturesque landscape.
Inside the economy class, navy blue seats, an extra legroom and a table at the side make the travel relatively comfortable. You can work while travelling and charge your phone from a power socket adjacent to the table.
The train has a capacity of 1,260 passengers. There are 15 economy class coaches and three first class coaches. The train is designed for double-decker passenger cars as need arises.
It also comes with a luggage carrier with a total capacity of 70 tonnes and a sleeper coach. The sleeper coach accommodates up to four people at a go and is manned by one attendant.
“Not many passengers are using the luggage carrier so far. We are yet to decide on the amount of kilos each passenger will be allowed to carry,” says Bonface Muema, one of the senior attendants on the train.
It also comes with a complete kitchen on coach number six, which can hold up to about 50 customers at a go. They serve juices, sodas, water, sandwiches and fruits. Alcohol is also sold in the kitchen.
A 250ml packet of (Pick n’ Peel) juice costs Sh150, a 150ml packet of juice Sh100 and a 350ml soda at Sh100. An apple costs Sh50 while sandwiches go for Sh250. A 500ml canned Tusker costs Sh350.
Even though the attendant declines to disclose to me how much they normally make in a day, business looks good as the sale area is filled to capacity. I can spot a number of middle-aged travellers enjoying their drinks.
At Salama, I can see the old railway line. It is about 20 kilometres from the highway. There are no roads in this area and the only visible infrastructure is the rail. For people here, the old rail used to provide direct access to these isolated towns.
At Kiboko, the train climbs up a slope, giving us a panoramic view of the area.
“Seeing villagers interacting freely with their kids is just amazing. You don’t see this on a bus,” says Robert, the NTV cameraman. Robert knows this terrain very well. He explains it like he is the one who should be writing this story. He doubles up as my guide throughout the journey.
At Tsavo West National Park, we are treated to a scenic view of Kenya’s wildlife, including herds of elephants, antelopes, giraffes and zebras. “Elephants in Tsavo National Park are called red elephants. The soil in the park is red and this makes them easy to spot. This is why they are called red elephants,” says Robert.
“It is quite an achievement to have had this project completed in two and a half years,” says Dann, as we alight at the Miritini Station in Mombasa.
I look at my watch. It is 1.38 pm, about four and a half hours since our departure in Nairobi. I feel fresh, nothing like someone who just covered nearly 500 kilometres — a journey that would have taken double that time by bus.