I recently discovered why I have been living with Rapunzel over the last 40 years. My wife, Joyce, has very long silky natural hair, which has been the envy of many a fair maiden.
During a casual family lunch with our children two weeks ago, they told us that they had traced their ancestry back to the days of the Lunatic Express. Apparently their maternal great-grandfather was an Indian working on the Uganda Railway, as it was then known. In the course of his duties he met a young Maasai lady with whom he had a relationship which produced a baby boy around 1899. This boy would later marry a Maasai girl and Rapunzel was born as the last child in a family of four. I married Rapunzel(Joyce) in 1978.
While on the subject of the railway, in the early days separate train services for freight and passengers were scheduled along the main line between Mombasa, Nairobi and Kisumu. However, at the discretion of the Station Master freight wagons could be added to a passenger train if there was urgent cargo as long as it was not hazardous. Such a combination was known as a “mixed train”.
When the branch line between Nairobi and Nanyuki was completed in 1931 the scheduled service consisted of mixed trains as there were not enough travellers to justify a separate passenger train. This mixed train traversed Kikuyuland, but the Kikuyus found it difficult to pronounce “mixed train” and ended up calling it “mugithi”, which has since morphed into a popular form of Friday night dance, mimicking a steam train. However, sometimes in the usual creative Kenyan tradition, the “mugithi” delivers participants straight into the hands of robbers outside the dance hall where they are promptly relieved of all valuables.
Last Friday I had the privilege of travelling on the SGR train to Mombasa courtesy of the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (Kepsa). Leaving my house at 7:15am the drive down Lang’ata Road and onto the Southern By-Pass was uneventful, but as soon as we got onto Mombasa Road the morning traffic slowed our progress.
To get to Syokimau Railway Station we had to double back after Gateway Mall on the Old Mombasa Road, which took a good thirty minutes. There is no signage to direct traffic to the station and one has to literally navigate by keeping sight of the station in the distance.
Syokimau Station is an imposing facility with all the trappings of a modern airport. We were welcomed to a hearty breakfast courtesy of Kepsa. At 8:45pm, the announcement came over the public address system; it was time to board the train and we were ushered through an efficient security check.
We were travelling first class and the standard of cleanliness was immediately evident both inside and outside the coaches. At 9 o’clock sharp, the train left the station with the smooth torque of the diesel electric engines powering us up to speed in no time.
Although the scrolling news bar in the coach indicated we were travelling at around 115km/hr. the ride was smooth and we just seemed to be gliding past the landscape.
The views were breath taking, but not as sedate compared to the old train, which travelled at about half the speed. The new train line is raised and fenced off while the old line is mostly at ground level and passes next to nature, homesteads and animal life. I missed the sight of little children waving as the train passed.
The seats were comfortable enough for a journey that takes under five hours and the cabin crew were courteous. Washrooms were clean and well equipped. All coaches were fitted with piped music which at times was intrusively loud for older ears. I had a chance to walk down to the economy class coaches and other than the seating configuration, they were pretty much the same as first class.
Slightly after 11am we arrived at Mtito Andei Station and those of us who were not overnighting in Mombasa disembarked. The station was equally modern and clean. After waiting for about 30 minutes we boarded the Nairobi bound train where lunch for first class passengers was served.
The menu offered a choice of pre-packed chicken and rice, lamb chops and ugali or beef stew and rice with fruit salad and 300ml bottled water. I remembered the five course meals, silverware and warm ambience of the dining car on the old train with a lot of nostalgia. Refreshments and light snacks were available for sale in the economy coaches. We were back in Nairobi by 2pm.
At the time of our journey payment for tickets was only available in cash at the station, but I understand payment by M-Pesa is already operational and online booking will be available this week. There is a shuttle service available from the main Nairobi Railway Station, but the road access obviously needs to be re-evaluated.
To put it in the words of one of my fellow passengers, the hardware is good, but the software needs some improvement.