A Canadian couple living in Kenya shares their experience on the SGR. Here is their impression of the 472km (293 miles) railway financed by Chinese loans for $3.2billion.
In February, Pat and I went to Mombasa using the new Standard Gauge Railway. As some of you may know the ‘Lunatic Line’ was built by the British from 1895 to 1899 and cost 2500 lives in the construction.
At the time the standard rail line had 1 meter between the rails. After they figured out that a wider track would make trains more stable and allow faster speeds, the old system got dubbed narrow gauge and the new 1.4 meter railways were called standard gauge. The first section, 465 Km, of the 660 Km line was started in 2013 and completed in 2017. This is the section between Mombasa and Nairobi.
Why Kenya will regret investing in a single track
It is a single track line which Kenya will regret in a couple of years as it limits its use as a result of having to shunt trains off on to sidings to allow an oncoming train to pass. The next section should take the train from Nairobi to Kampala, Uganda. Passenger service consists of only two trains per day each way.
The intercountry trains leave Nairobi/Mombasa at 8:00 AM. It stops in all the stations along with way reaching six hours later. The express, that makes no stops leaves at 3:15 PM and reaches its destinations five hours later. Cargo service has just really started and is only using the line in the evening.
WE STARTED OFF early in the morning since we were supposed to be at the station one hour before our scheduled departure at 8:00 AM. So we were up at 5:00 AM and on the road at 6:15 AM. Luckily for us, our trip to the station, which is on the outskirts of Nairobi, only took us 35 minutes. We had to go through security which was reasonably efficient and we had to show our tickets a number of times.
The Nairobi terminus is a very impressive building.
The train departed on time. We were on the inter-county train so it stopped at all 13 stations. This is the only train that runs in the morning. The Express (there are currently only two trains per day each way) goes in the afternoon.
WE TRAVELLED FIRST class at KSh 3,000 (economy costs KSh 750. It will go up to KSh 1,200). The only real difference is that first class is 4 seats across (2 on each side of the centre aisle while economy has 6 seats. So frankly for the difference in price and quality, economy is a much better deal.
Hospitality services on the SGR leave a lot to be desired
Even though this was to be a 6-hour journey they didn’t have a dining car and while they did have a drinks trolly that came by, it didn’t have much food and the coffee they served was instant. And the service was appalling. The cart started at one end of our car at 8:30 AM and made it to me, about half way, at 10:00 AM. The problem is they don’t have much stock and every time they ran out of anything they to take the cart back to the end of the car.
THE TRAIN RIDE itself was very smooth but we didn’t get up to much in the way of speed given the numerous stops. The other disappointment was that the terminus in Mombasa, like Nairobi is 20 km outside the city. And given the typical horrible Mombasa traffic, it took us 1.5 hours to get to our lodgings, the Mombasa Club.
THE MOMBASA CLUB itself is an old colonial building built originally in 1896 with a major renovation in 1905 and many other upgrades over the years. It is a delightful structure that works well. But it does have issues like the WiFi works on and off and some of the rooms really need upgrading.
The next day, we travelled to Rabai, about 20 km from Mombasa to see the museum there. Unfortunately, no one checked so when we got there, we found that the museum was under renovation. So we did a tour of the grounds and the Church. We returned to the Mombasa Club and had our lunch at a little restaurant across the street.
IN THE AFTERNOON we went for a tour of Fort Jesus that is only a few steps from where we stayed. The citadel was originally constructed by the Portuguese in 1598. It was designed to protect the old port of Mombasa (the new port is on the other side of the island). They lost it to the Omani’s who captured it after a two year siege. After almost 200 years the Omani’s asked the British to take over fearing the return of the Portuguese.
OUR LAST MORNING in Mombasa, was spent taking a walk through some of Old Town, the preserved part of Mombasa. It reminded me very much of Lamu or Zanzibar and of course they are all from the same period. It is a protected area and interestingly you can’t buy alcohol in any place in Old Town other than the Mombasa Club. The tour was given by a Mombasa architect who was remarkably well informed not only about the architecture but also the history of Old Town.
The challenge on the last day was getting out to the Mombasa Terminus by 2:15 AM to catch our 3:15 PM train to Nairobi. Lucky for us, it was Sunday so the traffic was relatively light and we made it to the Mombasa Terminus in a little under an hour.
While we took the inter-county train down which stops at all the stations, the afternoon train is an express which cuts the travel time down from 6 hours to 5 hours to travel the 460 km distance. But again on this trip they didn’t have a restaurant car but just a trolley. They have taken this concept from airlines but it is very inefficient and they limit their sales significantly.
THE ENTIRE TRIP was great. The train ride was fun and the tours we had in Mombasa were great, particularly with the guides we had.