Monday, May 15, 2017

Kenya’s First Standard Gauge Rail Train Day Return Trip From Nairobi to Mombasa

My Saturday 13th May 2017 was traditionally quiet having spent with my Ninjas Ray and Riley doing homework, planting flower seeds in the Fortress Garden then a few creative paper card creations and cartoons a typical day for Dad and the boys. It is 18:50 hrs and I receive a call asking us to be ready at 06:00hrs in the morning for the inaugural SGR Trip to Mombasa and back. Given the fact that we have been waiting for the mostly scanty information, and appreciating my curiosity to give a first-hand account of the humongous Project that Kenya has heavily invested in, we assemble and are ready for the journey.

It is a chilly Sunday morning, at 07:00AM we arrive at Syokimau – the Nairobi Passenger Terminus (NPT) which is located next to the current Syokimau Station approximately 14Kilometers from the CBD. For those wondering how passengers will make it to and from the CBD, arrangements are that they will enjoy commuter rail connection from a separate platform at the NPT.

Kenya’s first standard gauge rail train to Mombasa from Nairobi and back was made courtesy of The Kenya Tourism Board in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism, Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure and Kenya Railways Corporation. I know many of you have been asking how you can be on the next one, now you know where to ask but surely there will be that grand opportunity from 1st June 2017.

The Nairobi Terminus
The access road to the NPT is still being done. Hopefully it will be complete before the 1st passenger Train kicks off on 31st May from Mombasa to Nairobi by the President Uhuru Kenyatta. The passenger ticket machines are installed and pretty much the works in the Nairobi Terminus is almost complete. This is going to be a humongous platform that will handle both incoming and outgoing passengers fully fitted with seating and waiting lounges.

There are security scanners at all entrances complete with xray enabled luggage scanners for passenger’s safety. This I think is a great move in the history of public transport in Kenya that will guarantee to a large extend the security of passenger on board. The station also has escalators, lifts and stairs accessing various points on the platform with clear signage everywhere.

KR will outsource services to be provided at all the passenger stations including restaurants, shops, car park attendants, etc.
The First Passenger Train Journey to Mombasa
07:45 the brand new passenger train pulls up to the platform, the hostesses and conductors all dressed up in their uniforms stand in one file, saluting the train and in a military precision they enter to prepare the wagons for the first courtesy passengers. I did a rough and quick head count to an estimated 150 courtesy passengers. The passengers were mostly families which gave a good test to see the tenacity of the journey with kids on board. We are ushered in by the smiling and happy crew. So we were quite a small number of about 150 passenger which enabled free for all seating space across the entire train from First class to second class.

At 08:30 we depart for Mombasa. There is a lot of announcements to make sure that the passengers are comfortable and they do not miss any detail of the journey. I think the announcers could be given a bit more training to have the finesse of the announcers at JKIA. No pun intended. However I think it is a good thing to make sure that passengers are aware of their surrounding as well as safety and cleanliness measures.

The Passenger Wagons
Each wagon has two conductors and two hostesses. Passengers feel safe if they want to leave their items on the seats and have a walk across the train. The wagons have hangers for coats/jackets and hats. The train also has at least two armed Police Officers for the ultimate security.

The wagons have big non tinted windows that provide guests with the opportunity to enjoy Kenya’s beautiful landscape and connection to some of Kenya’s most pristine wilderness areas. On this occasion we spotted hundreds of Elephants as well as other wild animals in Tsavo East and West National Parks. This is appealing to both leisure and business seekers connecting Nairobi and Mombasa cities.
The wagons on this day for the most part of the first hour of the ride had a malfunctioned air condition. This was fixed later thus making the journey relaxing. This is a grey area since you can imagine with 1000 passengers on board and the air condition fails, it would be such a not so good environment to travel in.

Seating and view
The seating capacity for the passenger train is 1,551. On any one day, SGR has capacity to transport 3,102 passengers from Nairobi to Mombasa and vice versa. I was told should there be demand, a business class coach may also be provided in the train with business-class-aircraft-type of reclining seats.

The seating capacity in the second class wagon is 118 passengers. The seats on the Second Class Wagons have been fabricated with firm steel pipes holding them, cushioned and covered with fabric material. They are sets of three seats facing each other and separated by a little table in the middle affixed to the walling. The four base legs didn’t give me the feeling of stability especially if used over a long period. Time will tell if they can withstand the pressure of full capacity knowing that second class will have a relatively lower fare rate making the class overbooked and in most cases full all the time. Again I think for those random travellers, you will meet five new faces that will be forced to have a conversation and share the little table. I think they are a great conversation starter. Too bad for the anti-social travellers. These second class seats do not have arm rests. Yea, so the three by three passengers are stacked together and you had better create a travelling social bond if you are a second class lover. I mean why would anyone travel without talking to fellow travellers? We need to stop this bad manners. Greet people, smile at them, start a conversation. Let us accomplish that vision of one people one nation.
The capacity in First class wagon is 72 passengers seating. The seats in First class have a frim base and they can be turned around so that if you are travelling in a group of four, you can turn the seats so that you face each other and enjoy the journey. You can also pull the seating area and give it a reclining effect that leans the seat backwards for a more relaxing effect. But I couldn’t achieve that, I think the more upright position is better than the backward leaning position. This seats have a custom build table at the back of the seat giving the persons seating on the back somewhere to enjoy their drink or read a book. They also have armrests. This is especially good because it almost creates a private space for those travellers who just want to have their peace and quiet. Does this mean that the ones who can afford a higher fare rate are not good conversation starters?
The Dining Wagon
There is a dining wagon with a capacity of 50 passengers. Affixed to it is a kitchen and a service area. Passengers will enjoy dining and bar facilities on the train for the express as well as stopping train services in the comfortable restaurant car or in their seats for first class passengers.
Sleeping room.
There is a sleeping room for the night passengers that will want that option. Each compartment has four beds decked opposite each other. This is an option for a family that wants total privacy or friends travelling together. But heck, even total strangers can meet here and start a great conversations to relationships that will last. But remember it is for sleeping.
We did not have wifi in this train but I was told plans are underway to ensure the train gets to be installed with good internet service.

For the Thirsty passengers
There are water points with sinks in every compartment making it easy to clean up or draw water for drinking and other uses too.

Dust Bins
There are dust bins in every compartment and announcements are made to passengers to cooperate with the staff and ensure they keep the train dust free.

There two lavatories on each wagon. I hope they will be kept clean to ensure total comfort of the passenger. KR forgot to put tissue paper on our inaugural ride. The kind of technology they use for this service is the vacuum enabled sucker which if tissue paper is used, it would result in clogging and total failure of the system. I know there exists better technology out there for this service and I hope we are not facing an imminent crisis knowing these very basic human need to release the excess weight in the body. So just remember to carry a spare tissue and remember to not load your system hahaha!!
There is signage in the wagons and each seat that you booked for will be your designated seating space. So on booking you will need to know if you like a window seat, middle seat, or an aisle seat (for the second class. While first class you will decide between the two seats. Should you miss the window seat, don’t worry since the windows are so wide and the view and scenery is amazing including a glimpse of the wildlife in the Nairobi, Kiboko and Tsavo National Parks.
The rail tracks and speed
The passenger locomotive speed is set at 158km/hr. For this journey we did an average of 118km/hr. The line is a class 1 railway designed for high speed and high capacity passengers and freight delivery.

Stations and Stops
The stations are all themed – borrowing heavily from the local surroundings. The works in the other stations apart from Nairobi and Mombasa are complete. The finishing is of high quality, a break away from the old and rusty stations of the lunatic express.

There are seven intermediate stations from Nairobi to Mombasa; - Athi River, Emali, Kibwezi, Mtito Andei, Voi, Miasenyi and Mariakani.

There are twenty four crossing (Passing) stations – Mombasa port, Chigato, Manjeva, Mugalani, Mackninon, Road, Maungu, Ndi, Maololo, Tsavo, Kyulu, Kanga, Ndalasyani, Ngwata, Kinyambu, Makindu, Simba, Kivati, Sultan Hamud, Kima, Kiu, Ulu, Konza and Lukenya.

There will be an express train that will cover the Nairobi – Mombasa and Mombasa – Nairobi journeys within 4 hours and 30 minutes with only one brief stop at Mtito Andei. The stoping trains will take  5 hours and 15 minutes for the same distance.
Mombasa Terminus

At 1:00PM we arrived in Mombasa with the best views that the rail can provide. The Mombasa Passenger Terminus is located near Miritini – approximately 12 kilometres from Mombasa CBD. Passengers to and from Mombasa CBD will use public transport. Once finished I think the Mombasa station will be one of the best in the region although the architectural and design aspects were done to meet the local environment. The works on the ground is still far from finished but once done it will be one of the most picturesque locations in the coast region and quite appealing to the passenger. The station is greeted by a humongous control tower that seats imposingly above everything else as you approach.
While on the inaugural journey it took us 5.5 hours to Mombasa with one stop at Emali station arriving at 1300hrs. The return journey took us 6 hours since we stopped for 3 minutes each in every of the intermediate stations. It took us 6.5 hours on the return journey from 1400hrs to 20:45hrs. With this in mind I am not sure how KR will achieve the 4.5 hour journey unless they build interchange lanes for on coming and outgoing trains, both passenger and freight.

The speed of the train is fine, no need for seat belts, because it is a train and not a bus or car. The technology is different. To those that want to do family travels it is a perfect opportunity. The air conditioning in the train minimises fatigue levels since you are travelling in controlled air condition making the journey all refreshing. Also the fact that one can walk up and down the train makes it easy to relax and enjoy the journey.

The tariff levels for both freight and passengers are still a subject of discussion and will be made public as soon as SGR is ready for operation. I think this information needs to be up as of now knowing that we have about three weeks to the launch date. Many of you have asked me the same questions and to be honest, we all will have to wait until KR announces the rates. However the introductory rates are widely said to be cheaper and I hope that KR will put in measures to ensure that local tourism is promoted through friendly rates that will be embraced by majority of Kenyans and other passengers.

While the introductory tariffs will be easily reachable by majority of Kenyans, I doubt that the new and proper rates will be sustainable. The high tariffs when they come into effect will not convince people to look at the benefits of the train ride. It is widely known even in the most developed nations that Train tariffs are very expensive. The costs of maintaining the service will not be cheap and as such the high cost of running the service will mean the tax payers will have to either finance it or pay exorbitant rates to afford it.

Some public concerns

Quite a number of you were following my journey on social media and other platforms. In fact the folks at #theFirePlace kept asking all manner of questions mostly very important questions to ensure that they get the feel and hang of things. They are some of the best brains we have in the country. On seeing the photos of the seats in the second class that I shared on the Accountability Demand Group, Juliana wondered posed as an important question that a typical Kenyan would pose. In fact as soon as I entered the train the thought immediately crossed my mind on the fabric almost velvety cushioned seats. There needs to be a meticulous plan to keep those seats clean and free of lice and other bugs. I mean isn’t it reality that these things find themselves in the most unfamiliar places because of the various conditions humans live in?

The Lunatic Express (Kenya Railways Old Trains) used to have wipe-able heavy duty plastic to cover the seats for ease of maintenance. The cost of maintaining the fabric will be very high. (I know many of you have been to our Matatus that have been fitted with velvety fabric seats. With the dust and the heat, with continued washing, there comes a pungent smell that is unfathomable as you enter such a matatu. Now imagine that kind of a feeling in a passenger train that carries over 1000 passenger on a go.

Let me pose for a moment. The cleanliness in the train is very high. In fact the hostesses kept moving around the train cleaning any dirt that may have found its way on the floor. Announcements kept coming to parents to take care of their young ones so that we all keep the train free of garbage and dirt. SGR management has taken all the precaution. But try and imagine the train on full capacity. 1000 passengers with their 1000 problems, the staff will be overwhelmed. The seats will begin to see better days and will require complete replacement of the fabric. I think someone will listen and put up all weather material for those seats. We all want a long lasting solution that is cost effective.

Cost of Project and Return on Investment
So much has been said about the total costs of the SGR in Kenya. In fact the World Bank has come up with firm reports about its costs and how it is unsustainable to the Kenyan economy given the fact that we have heavily borrowed from China and EXIM Bank for the SGR development. 
Will the cost of the entire project be sustainable? Was this project meant for us to use or was it meant for the cartels in Government to make money? Will the project succeed on its implementation? Are the cost implications worth the work that has gone in noting the widely circulated and speculative allegations that other countries have used less than what we have to put up similar infrastructure?
Will the SGR appeal to both leisure and business seekers? I ask this because fact is that passengers services are just icing on the cake since the main objective of building the railway is to increase freight transport capacity in the Northern Corridor. 
Will the competing interests of Tanzania in setting up their own port injure our ambition and business plan? Will the freight traffic and capacity we have currently break even in the short term. This are questions that will continue to linger in the minds of many Kenyans and I hope we shall find the answers in time.

Mass Transport is best option

I am an ardent promoter of mass transport. Green practices are the way to go for the future. Any technological advancement that moves us closer to sustaining our environment is a welcome idea. But the cost implications should also be sustainable. Smart Movement is the way to go for all humanity. According to new studies, taking public transport instead of driving appears to make people happier and helps them to sleep better (source: Also, riding the bus or train to work is associated with a lower risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, and being overweight, according to research presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2015 (source: I hope that the SGR is the first step to Kenya achieving greener modes of transport for her citizens.
So, why wait?

For Now you have a little snippet of what it will take for you and your loved ones to take advantage of the Kenya Railway service, travel and see the magical Kenya and enjoy.
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  1. Flushing of toilet papers are strictly prohibited on the train. That's the reason why they are not provided. This will be chaotic.

    1. True. There is still room for innovation so that the waste can be vacuumed into a tank that will then be released to a septic somewhere in one of the stations. There is still room for innovation with the modern technology. This remains a very disturbing topic in the travel industry.

  2. Thank you Dennis for a comprehensive imagery of the SGR. I would also wish to know if there are trash bins and clear guidelines on disposal. We hope to get the answers of the questions you raise, am equally concerned.

    1. Hi Kibe, there are trash bins in every compartment so the passengers just need to learn the disposal formula.