Harriet Constable takes a ride on the new SGR train to Mombasa, cutting the journey to under five hours. The creaky ‘Lunatic Express’ that used to ply this route has gone, but will the new train have anything like the charm?
It’s 7 am and I’m on the back of a boda boda, winging my way down the Mombasa road towards Nairobi’s shiny new railway station to take the long-awaited Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) train to Mombasa.
After 40 minutes of cutting through the traffic and hanging on to my boda rider for dear life, I decide this should not be called the ‘Nairobi Terminus’ but the ‘Somewhat Out of Town Terminus that is a Real Pain in the Ass To Get to for a 9 am Departure.’
This is not the first time my boda driver Wycliff has visited the station for me. With no online booking or telephone system at present, getting tickets in person is the only option. I discovered all this only after a series of long-winded phone calls to Kenya Railways and Facebook messages with those who had already taken the trip.
So, my mood is somewhat sour (I can’t feel my bottom) as I arrive at the huge new station with its sleek grey structure and fancy glass walls. Through the two stages of security I go – both involve bag checking and frisking – and up the escalators into the bright, clinical waiting room. It’s now 8 am, and the train departs at nine.
At 8.45 we’re called through to the platform. Elegant women in smart uniforms stand at the entrance to every carriage: smiling, checking tickets and welcoming people on board. Excited passengers are examining the carriages, storing their luggage in the overhead racks, taking selfies and commenting on how clean and spacious second class is.
It’s true – the SGR train is very nice. Comfortable seats, spacious walkways, clean toilets. For some reason though, I’m starting to feel somewhat uneasy. I can’t quite put my finger on it and then it hits me – everything is so organised. Where are the passengers clambering across the tracks, or leaping aboard when the train is already moving? Where is the floral dining cart with the clattering crockery and dodgy soup? In short: where are the things that made Kenya’s original Mombasa–Nairobi railway line, so delightfully charming?
I’m beginning to resent the Chinese construction company that (very expensively) brought Kenya’s railway system into the modern day and at the same time helped it lose all its yesteryear appeal in one clean sweep. Gone is the Lunatic Express, the British-funded line built in the 1890s at great financial and human cost that emerged as one of the world’s great train rides. Despite the train’s many faults – long delays and ageing, dingy interiors, where my legs stuck to the cracked leather seats, and hot, dusty air poured in through the windows, it was magical. This new train is air-conditioned. It’s dull.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the other passengers don’t seem to share my nostalgia for the rickety old train. They settle into their seats, and at 9 am on the dot, we jolt off towards Mombasa.
‘A town that never sleeps’
Just as I was beginning to think all sense of personality had been omitted from this new line, the speakers in our carriage crackle into life, playing tinny 1990s power ballads over the mellow hum of passenger chatter. Yes! And there’s more: along the journey, we’re given little updates on what we’re seeing out of the windows or the place we’re about to travel through. Emali, apparently, is “a town that never sleeps due to its vibrant nightlife, and is a popular truck stop for drivers coming to or from Mombasa.”
We snake through hundreds of miles of scrubland, past small clay houses, narrow dirt tracks disappearing into the distance, donkeys grazing in the hot sunshine and kids herding cattle. Occasionally, we run parallel to the steady stream of trucks slogging their way down the Mombasa road. Then the train veers away into the terracotta landscape mottled with green trees. In our carriage, a sliding screen informs passengers it is 32 degrees Celsius outside.
A glimpse of the wildlife
At Tsavo National Park, passengers stand up to try and catch a glimpse of some wildlife, children pressing their faces up against the glass windows. Soon after, we have to pull in to let the train coming in the opposite direction pass. The reaction from the carriage as it speeds by is brilliant – everyone, and I mean everyone, leaps up and erupts into cheers, clapping and laughing like their favourite football team had just scored a goal.
The scrubland turns to sand, palm trees and neatly-cultivated luscious farms – a sure sign we are nearing Mombasa. Our train pulls into the strangely elaborate Mombasa Terminus at 1.49 pm – 20 minutes after it was scheduled to arrive. Still, the whole journey took just under five hours, knocking an impressive eight hours off the journey time on the Lunatic Express. We’re still about an hour out of Mombasa at this terminus, and I have a flight to catch, so I hop in a tuk tuk and wind through the traffic-filled, polluted streets of Mombasa to the airport. By 4.40 pm, I’m in the air, and by 5.45 pm, I’m back in Nairobi, on the back of another boda boda, heading home. It may have cost a fortune to build, and it might not have all the charm of the old Lunatic Express, but the new SGR is smart, not totally without personality, and most of all, quick.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:
Journey time: 4.5 hours.
First class: Ksh3,000. Seats in first class are more comfortable than in second. They recline, and can swivel all the way around so you can sit in pairs or as a group of four facing each other.
Second class: Ksh700. Seats in second class are in clusters of four or six, with a small table in between.
Tickets: They are released three days in advance from the Nairobi Terminus. Advance booking necessary. Passengers, or a representative, must pay for and pick up tickets in person.
Where: Nairobi Terminus is at Syokimau SGR terminus is 30 minutes from the CBD, beyond the airport. For those coming from central Nairobi, Kenya Railways offers a shuttle service, a train departing Nairobi’s central railway station every day at 7 am to the Syokimau terminus. For passengers arriving from Mombasa, it leaves Syokimau for town at 1.30 pm.
Mombasa Terminus is at Miritini, about an hour’s drive from central Mombasa.
Related Content: Read ‘End of the Line for the Lunatic Express’