Why Kenyans are scrambling for a seat on Madaraka Express
Politics of costs and corruption aside, every Kenyan should take a train ride to Mombasa and back on Madaraka Express. Do not be mistaken. I do not like the look of its coaches and there nothing modern about Madaraka Express. But give it to the Chinese, what they lost on the coaches, they tried to compensate with the design of the train stations. The stations can easily pass for any modern airport terminus anywhere in the world.
If the Nairobi Terminus will not blow your mind, the Mombasa terminus will definitely leave an impression. Most of the things that take away the joy from a ride on the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) are however not on the train. For example, you will probably be angered by the fact it is the Chinese selling tickets at the booking offices and not Kenyans. But good things first. There is so much to love about the Madaraka express, and the Chinese contractors have spared no effort to impress.
First is the timing.
Madaraka Express does not operate on ‘african time’ and its margin of errors. The train takes off on time. At exactly 9am the engines roar to life and the journey begins. It does not matter how far you are from the train station. If you are not there on time, you will miss the train. I saw many people miss the train when they were just a minute away. The take off is smooth. You will barely hear the carriages start moving or notice that it is gathering speed. It is such a smooth exit from the station that if you were asleep you would probably not realise that you have started moving. It is nothing close to the whining jet engines and tense moments that you experience when a plane is taking off. Inside, the infamous Michuki rules do not apply. You do not need seat belts. In any case there are none on board. But I do not know if you will survive a train crash without seat belts. The train gathers speed, but you will barely notice this. Until we met the other train coming from Mombasa, I was not convinced that we were doing anything above 80km per hour. It is at this point that I actually realised we were at 120km per hour. If you also do not believe the speedometer on the train, wait until you reach parts of the journey where the train is running parallel to road traffic, then you realise exactly how fast the juggernaut can run.
Most of the passengers I spoke to while on board scored the ride highly on comfort, security and speed. One of them, a 100-year-old granny who said she once rode on the predecessor to Madaraka Express, Lunatic Express, before independence said. She said the difference between the two was palpable. “It is better than the colonial train. I am totally enjoying the ride. It is faster and has very helpful and friendly crew,” said Mrs Hannah Thomas. The last thing you should worry about is security. On this front, good work has been put in right from the point of boarding. You will have to bear with security screening akin to the one at the airport. There are also policemen on board. I counted at least eight of them on this trip. From time to time they would patrol the train in pairs. Most importantly they are friendly. I hope this remains so. Still, whoever designed Madaraka Express carriages was certainly not techno-savvy. How else do you explain the lack of WiFi facilities on the train – not even in the first class wagons – in 2017? This when 14-seater matatus on the streets of Nairobi have free WiFi? “It is a great experience. I can bring my children out every weekend. But they should consider having WiFi on board,” said Wahu Kagwi, a popular musician.
I bumped into her in the restaurant – you could call it the heart of the Madaraka Express. It can host 50 guests, its design is warm with every effort made to give it an aura of any other restaurant in town. It perhaps explains why once people get into the restaurant, they are slow to leave. Many give up their seats in the wagons to sit in the restaurant and enjoy a meal or a drink while watching the rolling hills and picturesque scenes slide by. The prices of food and drinks on board will depend on how deep your pocket runs, but nothing costs less than Sh100. A small mug of coffee or tea, a mandazi or any biting is at least Sh100. Good news is that you can carry your food and eat it on board. So if you do not like the service, you know what to do. One thing nearly everyone who loves a tipple seemed to agree on was that the beer was not exactly affordable for those who like one too many. A small can of Tusker went for Sh300 and a Pilsner Sh350. But that did not seem to deter passengers from partying on board. During my trip, there was so much drinking at the restaurant one would have thought the train was running on alcohol. Still, this did not take away the glaring need for such basic facilities as the internet aboard Madaraka Express. This need was felt by business executives on the trip. “Having WiFi would be nice. This way I can work as I go along,” said Carole Kariuki, the CEO of Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA). Ms Kariuki was accompanied by about 230 members of KEPSA and their families on the weekend trip. KEPSA sees the railway as the cog that the country needed to unlock domestic tourism in the country.
“This is going to open up the country. It will especially open up tourism in the country. Kenyans love going to Mombasa and this will make it easier. The benefits for the business community are enormous,” she said. She said the Standard Gauge Railway was a boon for the business community in Kenya in terms of cutting cargo transport costs and time. “The increased speed and lower costs of transporting cargo are the biggest benefits that stand out for me,” said the KEPSA boss. The numbers of people the train can carry is another plus. A single trip carries passengers equivalent to 21 buses. It has 10 economy class coaches carrying 118 people each. This translates to 1,180 passengers. It has three first class coaches, two of them carrying 72 passengers each and the third one with a capacity of 66. That cumulatively adds up to 1,272 passengers. The remaining two coaches have one as the restaurant and the other restricted for the mechanics and crew. Now to this big fuss about first class. You pay Sh3,000 to be on first-class and Sh700 to be on economy. So what does the extra Sh2,300 buy you? There is really not much difference between a passenger travelling first class and one in economy insofar as the travel experience is concerned. But there are some benefits for first-class travellers. Passengers on first class have a little bit more space. Every row in the first-class coaches has four seats compared to the five in the economy class. You will also have a socket to charge your phone or laptop. There are a maximum of 72 people on every coach in first class, while 118 people are crammed into one economy-class coach.
There is also a small table for every passenger and a headrest for those on first class. All the seats also face in front but can be adjusted to face one another, if travelling as a small group. In the economy class, four or five people share a table. There is no armrest for the seats and you must seat facing each another. This may be a little uncomfortable if you do not like the person seated opposite. But the ride is more or less the same. Looking back at the trip, the hardest part remains getting to the railway station on time. Getting to the Nairobi Terminus in Syokimau from the Central Business District (CBD) is one thing that will put off many travellers or cause many to miss the train. I had to use a motorbike to maneuver through heavy traffic and be at the station on time. That is not just an extra cost but it would not be a good experience if you have luggage or children. But the most painful part of the journey is getting to Mombasa’s CBD and back from the Mombasa terminus at Miritini. Until the road is done, you will hate this part of the journey. If you have not left the house by 7am, you probably should not leave because either way you will miss the train. If you live anywhere beyond Mombasa town, do not bother. Clearly, the train was launched a few months earlier than it should have. The roads to and from the stations are yet to be completed. Until they are, many Kenyans will arrive at the station too late, only to hear the train whistling a hundred miles away!