Lunatic express

Train Travails

‘Let’s take the train from Mombasa’, said B last week.

We needed to get to the coast for some urgent errands and we had a short time to do it. Not holiday mode for sure because I had to get back to work. I had strongly opposed this proposition because I had heard horror stories about these train rides from friends. The common theme/complaint was that one would be delayed beyond any normal understanding because the train would either break down and it would take forever to have it back up and running or worse still another train may have derailed on the track and so regardless of the fact that your train was ok, you’d not move forward.

My attempt at sticking to my guns was quickly quashed by the argument ‘wouldn’t you like to ride on a train called Lunatic Express?’ I thought… that is exactly why I wouldn’t go on a train with such a name! What would cause something to have such a name? Do I even want to find out? Can I handle the truth? A-la Tom Cruise’s character in Jerry Maguire. I was assured(thanks to the internet) that timelines had improved and delays had been dealt with, so it was worth a try. I conceded.

Going to the coast was actually much faster than I thought. Last time I took the bus down coast, I don’t remember it being so short. I think coming from the western part of the country that has always been my yard stick for long distance trips-and then some. So this was a pleasant surprise. B had booked tickets for the return journey, Tuesday night. The cost was ksh4, 505 for first class, one way, full board(all meals served) and beddings. The trains leave Mombasa on Tuesday and Thursdays at 7pm and from Nairobi on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

The blog by Bankelele also has information on this train. You can read about it here

Mombasa trainstation platform. Picture by B.
Mombasa trainstation platform. Picture by B.

 

We had been given instructions to get to the station by 6:00pm, for the 7:00pm departure.

Though I had actually been reluctant to travel by train, once I had changed my mind, the excitement started building up. We checked in and the clerk informed us that the train would be late by about 2 hours. Half an hour later he suggested that we go into town to kill some time and he would call us once the train arrived. His estimation at this point was that the train would be in the station at 11:00pm. Not much later after that, he asked me if I had any plans for the next day..you can fill in the likely reason for this question. I should have taken it with more weight.

The training actually arrived at midnight and though it was royally late, we were excited!

Train arrival
Here she comes.

However we could not leave just yet because the engine had to go for servicing. This took another 3 hours. We left Mombasa at 3am, 8 hours after our scheduled departure time. This delay would build up to the other stops along the way, meaning we arrived in Nairobi at 12:30am the next day ie Thursday.

While the delay was longer than any I had experienced in my travels, the journey itself for the most part was ok.

Voi station signboard
Voi station signboard
Stations along train route
Voi Station platform
Mtito andei signboard
Mtito Andei signboard

Highlights:

Meals: 3 course dinner, continental breakfast, good lunch with fruit salad and juice.

Apparently these are provided by Pride Inn. Not too sure why or what the connection is, but the meals were ok.

Dinner on the train
Dinner is served

Clean beddings: These were availed to all passengers in the cabins. They had been laundered and the train crew was at hand to make up the sleeping compartment.

Scenic views: Being late, meant we were able to see more of the land. If the train is on schedule it takes 15 hours from 7pm to 10:00am next day, so most of the journey is in the dark and you miss out on all the beauty that the scenery has to offer.

Construction of the Standard Gauge Railway(SGR):

You get to see first hand the construction process for the SGR. I have to admit I didn’t know much about the process but seeing all the work that was going on. I got an idea of how massive the undertaking was and at the same time, how far they have come with this project.

In some parts of the course, the SGR track has been elevated, such that when you look outside from the RVR train you only see the soil banks of the SGR railway at your eye level-not much of a view unfortunately. It’s also likely that the construction of the SGR has affected the wildlife presence in the area around Tsavo National park. I did not see any wild animals,that’s quite telling. Tsk tsk tsk.

But, for what it’s worth,it will be a game-changer no doubt.

Pillars of SGR bridge.
Pillars of SGR bridge
Picture by B.

 

Low points:

Delay: Late arrival from Nairobi, cumulatively affected the arrival in Nairobi. Must have been the longest delay either of us had ever experienced.

Maintenance: It was clear to me the train was quite the beautiful machine in it’s hey day. They still did the meal service with some of the original serving equipment. Quite unique pieces actually. Sadly, the maintenance of the interior has not been upheld. It was dirty in some areas and it would definitely be much more appealing if it was given a thorough clean. This would also probably endear the train to passengers. If I had a cleaning company…

Also, though there were fans in the rooms and the ceiling in the restaurant car, these sadly did not work and it did get quite warm. Fortunately there were windows on the corridors from which one could get some respite while looking out into the scenery.

Views from the train

 

 

Single track: This meant that if there was any other train on the track or problem, along the track for whatever reason, you are affected and would have to wait at a station which had split tracks.Only when the issue is cleared on the track or the other train chugging along in the opposite direction gets to your rendezvous point and clears out, would the train proceed. Can you hear the minutes passing by?

Cargo train passing by
Cargo train passing by.

We had both scenarios.

First a derailed cargo train ahead of us forced a stop at one of the stations. This situation needed service crew to come all the way from Changamwe to fix the train, move it off the track and clear the track for other trains. Took all of 3.5 hours to get us back on track. I should be glad though, that we were not the ones who got derailed.Secondly, once we were on our way,there were a number of prolonged stops along the stations for other cargo trains to go past before we could proceed.

The upside of this, we got out and stretched our legs a bit more and enjoyed some cooler air .

This picture was taken at Mackinnon road and shows a side by side view of current train system(RVR) and the new system (SGR)under construction.

Mackinnon Road station
Mackinnon Road station. SGR Construction on the right. Picture by B.

 

On a side note,I am researching on who this guy ‘Mackinnon’ was, for him to have a station named after him on the train and bus route as well . Anyone with information please share.

 

I have to say though, I was not physically tired. I think the rocking motion of the train combined with the heat,  just made you sleep within 20-30 minutes if you were not doing anything engaging. It was an interesting phenomenon for me. Time and again, I tried not to fall asleep while reading a book and before I knew it, I was dosing off. It was quite hilarious. Which also means you should have some form of entertainment or something to keep you busy for a long duration.

 

All in all ‘it was not catastrophic, just an inconvenience’, as one of the passengers rightly put it. I was relieved for him, I thought he was due to catch a flight once we got to Nairobi.

It would be great if the train would be maintained better and some of the gadgets like the fans, to start working. I think this would improve the experience for sure. Maybe it’s worth considering reducing the number of cars and just have a few of them per class? This way, it’s a smaller number to maintain or deal with and because there are not many passengers, it would not be a problem.Maybe, the fewer spaces would introduce scarcity and people would be clamouring to get tickets, ofcourse with a revamped interior.Just a thought.

 

The delays however, are something else.

 

Despite the crew’s efforts to assure us that this delay was not typical, I got the feeling this was a standard response they employed to deal with looks of despair from passengers. I’m sure whoever is in charge definitely knows what needs to be done to mitigate this issue. The fact that this has been going on for some time(due to the various reports I had heard about) tells me there is more to it than just lack of awareness or goodwill. So I will leave it at that.

 

Considering this passenger train is still surviving despite the presence of newer modern buses plying the same route with all the bells and whistles, tells me it has ‘spine’.

I think it would be a novelty to still ride on it even when new modern systems challenge its existence, literally within feet of its tracks.

 

Have you tried out the lunatic express? what was your experience.

If not, would you like to try it out?

 

Let me know in the comments section below.

 

Cheers!

12 thoughts on “Train Travails

  1. You’re very courageous to take the train for work. Earlier this year, we were planning an office meeting at the coast, and we had lots of first time visitors to Kenya. I thought it’d be nice for some of them to take the train to Mombasa, but after consulting widely (including corresponding with the railway company to predict there reliability), we abandoned this idea.

    We’ve taken the train a few times for leisure over the last few years and it’s an improvement of what it was before privatization. Some of this may be due to outsourcing some functions like catering (to Pride Inn)

    That said, it’s worrying if the new SGR is also single track – as a single broken down train will disrupt the entire corridor

    1. Courageous or just plain crazy!
      Fortunately, you have a perspective of what it was before and so you would definitely appreciate the steps they’ve taken to improve-now I know the Pride Inn connection. Guess we’ll just wait and see how things pan out with the SGR.
      Thanks for your insights and stopping by.

  2. Hahahaha., glad you enjoyed. Reminds me that last time I used the train to Mombasa, 1992 on 3rd class. That was AN EXPERIENCE!

    1. 1992 was definitely the era of the glory days Josephine. I also remember taking it to Naivasha in the 90s and it was quite a lot of fun actually.

  3. I took the train as a child on a school trip to the coast. It was tons of fun and was on time both to and fro. I wouldn’t dare right now. An 8-hour delay could throw a lot of things out of whack for me, so congratulations on your bravery.

    1. Thanks Sura Mbaya.I think sometimes bravery masks itself behind some form of lunacy-this was probably one of those times:). Thanks for stopping by.

Comments are closed.