First Impressions of the Madaraka Express

I never got round to using the old Nairobi-Mombasa passenger train. So I was quite sad reading about its final journey last year. It may have been a journey that took 17 hours, with frequent derailments, and in carriages that were uncomfortable and dirty, but it was a unique experience, with a rich and fascinating history. I’m kicking myself for resisting the lure of the ‘Lunatic Express’ for so many years.

But there’s no denying that the railway was in desperate need of an upgrade, and we’ve got it now with the glossy white-and-orange Madaraka Express. The numbers involved are well documented: the eye-watering Sh327 billion that the government borrowed to construct the first phase of the SGR, at Sh560 million per kilometre of track. Some say this last figure is inflated, but I still had high expectations when I took the train for the first time a few weeks ago.

For a long time after the SGR was launched, the tedious ticket booking process was a big deterrent for me. But I’m impressed with the efficiency of the system now. It was really easy to book our tickets online, pay with M-PESA and print them at the station an hour before the train was due to leave. Sh700 for a second class ticket to Voi is great value – less than the cost of our taxi to the station.

But I was less impressed by the length of time it took us to get through the building. I appreciate the need for tight security, but surely scanning people and their luggage three times before they get into the waiting lounge is excessive. And that was after an initial sniffer dog inspection of our bags.

We were advised to arrive early to allow for these checks, though, and we still had some time left over for a cup of coffee in the lounge – where there was a wide selection of food and drink on offer.

We eventually shuffled across the bridge over the tracks, and found our seats in a packed carriage. At 8.20am sharp, we were on our way as scheduled – a far cry from the inevitable lateness of the old train. Through the large, clean windows, we enjoyed the view as we trundled by the National Park. There are plenty of interesting sights along the Nairobi-Mombasa railway, and it was a nice touch to get a mini lecture over the tannoy about some of the areas we passed through, like Tsavo East and West.

As we left Nairobi, though, it became a bit harder to enjoy the view as a result of a few distractions within the carriage. Because all the seats in second class are narrow, and face each other, it’s quite an intimate experience with your fellow passengers. So it can be difficult for individuals who want to work, read or watch the world go by, sitting next to loud groups.

We were sitting next to a group of young women who screeched and cackled for most of the journey. To drown them out, a man opposite me folded up his newspaper, placed a large Bluetooth speaker on the table and started blaring out his favourite Afrobeats. I noticed this man in the queue for our carriage at Voi station on the return journey, and he did the same thing then – but this time to drown out another group of ladies singing along loudly to gospel tunes on their phones.

You have to understand that my reference point for train etiquette is England, where only crazy people speak to strangers, and everyone shakes their head in silent, passive aggressive disapproval if someone’s music is too loud from their headphones. By no means am I saying that this is how it should be on the SGR – it just would have been a nicer journey without D’Banj’s Oliver Twist in my ear the whole way.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation