Vintage train trip to Mombasa and back

Before the new Standard Gauge Railway roars into operations between Nairobi and Mombasa later on in the year, we decided to take the old “Lunatic Express” passenger train to relive the old age and experience a vintage train trip in the 19th Century mode of transport that still snakes across Kenya to this date.

There are daily commercial flights between the two largest Kenyan cities and a major highway for vehicular traffic if you wish to travel fast but how does the idea of travelling the 500km distance overnight on a legendary railway line sound?

The old Nairobi Railway Station

The passenger train departs from Nairobi every Monday and Friday at 1700hrs and arrives in Mombasa at 1100hrs on Tuesdays and Saturdays respectively. The return trip to Nairobi is scheduled for Wednesdays and Sundays at the same departure and arrival times. The journey (normally) takes roughly 18 hours but may take longer depending on what happens on the way i.e. delays, stops or incidents. Accidents are rare.

The 11 wagon train in full motion

The passenger service on the over 100 year old metre gauge railway is provided by the Rift Valley Railways Consortium. They offer a choice of three alternative classes for passengers to pick from;

1. First class– This is the most comfortable and luxurious section with a bed, seats, table and a modern toilet. It is mostly used by tourists and the wealthy joyriders. For Ksh 4405, you get a package consisting of dinner, bed and breakfast in your private room.
2. Second class– There are two options in this middle class section. Dinner, bed and breakfast costs Ksh 3385 while bed and breakfast goes for Ksh 2335. They have two long leather seats in each room that can also be used as beds.
3. Third class– The cheapest option costs Ksh 680 for a seat only and is more convenient for travellers on a tight budget. The coaches are mostly empty and so you can be lucky to have 2 or 3 seats all to yourself.
N/B: Children older than 12 years pay full price while those between 3 and 11 pay a fraction of it.

Inside one of the third class wagons

We decided to take the third class option and brought our own food and drinks for the Monday evening trip. We bought tickets shortly after midday, after that adrenaline filled rush against time. The attendant on the information desk had said on an earlier inquiry that we had to book before 12 and be at the station at 4.

The staffs at the Nairobi Railway Station provide poor customer service. From the guards at the entrance to the attendants at the desk, their demeanor is lethargic and unprofessional. The floor, structures and paintwork at the station can do with an overhaul. Customer service too. They represent the discourteous and apathetic public service of the past from the antique colonial masterpiece.

We needed to leave our luggage at the station (at a fee) but whoever “keeps the keys” could not be found. A guard caught me taking photos and rudely asked me to delete them, luckily I had taken some already. ( What is this thing about restricting photography around Nairobi?)

Despite that, the whole journey was smooth and uneventful. Most passengers in the third class section were traders; middle aged women with sacks and baskets of produce and goods from the city to the small towns and rural villages along the railway line. There were a few hawkers walking along the aisle selling everything from bananas and accessories to drinks and candy. There was an elderly couple, a man reading a newspaper and a young lone backpacker. Several children were happily perched on a window staring at the countryside as the train rolled into the darkness.

The sunrise over the new SGR on Tuesday morning from the train

The train stops at several stations along the way as people disembark and others hop on. There is the occasional policeman with a gun and a ticket officer who comes to collect fares and to check the tickets. Two women who seem to know each other start talking and laughing loudly. They are joined by a third woman who starts telling them a story in vernacular. As the sun sets and darkness creeps in, the train meanders across the Kapiti plains towards Tsavo; home to the infamous Man Eaters of Tsavo. We saw a few wild animals on the beautiful landscape.

Most of the passengers from Nairobi alight along the way and by 10:00pm, the cabin is left silent and almost empty with most seats unoccupied. I read a book until I am sleepy as Tabasamu works on her crochet blanket. We eat a snack and drinks and take turns to sleep on the empty seats. The washroom in the third class cabins is just a small cube with a hole on the floor. You see the steel and pebbles on the railway flying past as you release your refuse.

The sunrise was magical from the horizon as we snaked towards Voi on Tuesday morning. We were slowly running parallel to the SGR and the highway; a stark contrast between the past, the present and the future. It is said that the new train will take less than 8 hours; almost a third of the current duration for the trip.

The second class seat/bed

We arrived in Mombasa at 10:00am, one hour ahead of schedule. The journey was without hiccups and we so we took the same back to Nairobi one week later. We managed to sneak into one of the second class wagons and slept there for most of the night. At the crack of dawn, we went back to our third class wagon and enjoyed the ride back home happily.

It was an unforgettable experience, one that you should definitely check out.

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