My Experience With The New SGR, Madaraka Express
It is the talk of town and I was curious to see what the hullabaloo was about.
I’ve been mute here, and I know and it sucks. However, sometimes it happens that you have so much to say (and I won’t say “but there’s little time,” because time has been there), but how to put it out there is the problem. There’s something about routine i.e. doing the same thing day in day out that suppresses your creativity and your thought process, such that you find yourself wrapped up in your little world and it can become suffocating. And that’s what I was feeling. That I needed to step out of my usual and explore a different environment and hopefully, recharge.
My recent work based trip couldn’t have come at a better time, because it helped me do exactly that. I got the great opportunity to travel using the most recently launched SGR, Madaraka Express. It has been the talk of town and I was curious to see what the hullabaloo was about. I have travelled by train once before, but that was with the old one (I hear it was called Lunatic Express, don’t know if it was the same one) just after I had finished campus in 2009 with my classmates going down to the Coast. It was a bit different because we were placed in cabins that had bed-like deckers. I can’t remember whether it had regular seats to be honest, because we were all over the place. We traveled overnight, so it was a lot of bickering, knocking on people’s doors, running around, you know just having a good time and then sleeping and waking up in time for arrival and breakfast. It took us about 12 hours to reach the Coast. It was a one long trip that I never looked forward to doing again. We even came back via bus.
Where to start! Okay, let’s go with why we chose to go with the train in the first place. Ordinarily for work-based trips, we would fly over because it’s just 45 mins and you dive straight into business. However, this time round we wanted to capture experience, because we have been doing an internal series featuring all Chasers (people who work at Chase Bank and to some extent also those that bank with Chase Bank) in their element called “Chase@Work”. At the same time we were also looking to save on our budgets so that we can be able to do more with the money allocated to us.
So just when we were organizing our Coast trip, the SGR was launched and we thought it would be a perfect mode of transportation for this particular project. We could document bits of the trip to our Coast branches and use it in our series and at the same time, we can save on transport costs. Way to kill two birds with one stone 😀
For the SGR, a first class ticket is KES 3,000 one way. So it’s KES 6,000 if you’re purchasing a return ticket, which is advisable because by the time we were going, they hadn’t automated their ticketing system. We literally had to send a rider to buy for us our tickets the day before. We also couldn’t check the availability of seats in the train, which we felt is an oversight because if you’re buying your tickets on the day of your journey, you can really get disappointed if you get there and find that the train is fully booked but there was no way of knowing that beforehand. Also, the phone numbers don’t work or if they do, there’s no one to pick them up. We traveled on 13/06/2017 and we were trying to figure out if there’s a way we can buy tickets online on 12/06/2017 but there was no one on the other end of the line to assist. Perhaps they could invest in a contact center to assist in bookings, because that’s where the sale happens.
The train leaves at 9:00am sharp. With that knowledge, on the day of the journey, we started out very early, at 6:30am, knowing that Mombasa Road can surprise you with some good ol’ traffic jam. And true to our thoughts, we found back to back traffic at the turning that gets you into the railway station, but because we were early, we weren’t that worried. There were many trucks leaving for their days work and that was causing the snarl up. When we got into the railway station, it was a view to behold. It looks new and China-shiny, well designed in terms of space and lighting and people come in droves. I think it was the first time for many of us because everyone had their phone camera out trying to capture this experience and sharing their experience in conversations, “I am going to Mombasa with the SGR” or “Oh! It’s really nice, I will tell you about it.”
When you get there, you need to have your ticket in hand because you will need to use it to enter the main entrance of the station where there’s also a security check. The security check is basic – not as strict as the airport one where you have to even remove your belt and sometimes shoes. You then take the elevator which takes you to the waiting lounge, where they would separate the economy and first class in terms of sitting locations. So the first class people have their own corner and the economy class, their own corner too. There’s nothing special about the waiting lounge, just metallic chairs. There are also bathrooms, which are clean but they don’t have tissue (so you’ll need to carry your own.)
There’s a lot of communication in the form of public service announcements so at least there’s no chance that you will miss out on anything. Once it’s time to board the train you will be directed on what to do and where to go for both first class and second class. The only problem we saw was the lack of wheel chairs and ramps. The distance between the waiting lounge and the train is far and there’s a lot of stairs and escalators and that can be a real struggle for an old or disabled person(s). There’s actually one who was asking and complaining why they don’t have. They’ll need to reconsider that.
There are a lot of people of Chinese descent speaking in Chinese and hovering around inside and outside the train, so let that not surprise you. Also, there’s a statue of Zheng He, a Chinese Diplomat in the 14th Century at the entrance of the Mombasa Terminal explaining the origin of the ties between Kenya and China. Also, their flag is pinned in the SGR coaches and flown high beside ours outside station. That was for me a (not-so-subtle) reminder that they run the station, let’s not get it twisted. The hostesses, who are local, are very smartly dressed with their uniforms, great attitude and connect well with the passengers as they’re able interact in both English and Kiswahili. From the smiles as they welcome people on board, the humility they display in the way they present themselves, the assistance they offer while you’re on and off board. They’re readily available and ready to assist.
Before you board the train, you will need to check your coach number and seat number, so that you can enter the right coach and seat in your allocated seat. For the first class, which is where we sat, the set-up is seats, which are comfortable and spacious (2 rows with 2 seats on either side) and with just enough leg room. The AC works well and the coach is airy, cooled and not stuffy at all. There is space for your luggage right above your seat – so you can rest assured that it’s safe and secure. They play some nice and familiar mellow music that’s soothing and that you can find yourself silently singing along or humming to (RnB, Soft Rock, Rhumba et al).
There’s a toilet within the coach that you can only use when the train is moving because of how it’s set up. It’s kept clean and it uses a flash system that’s a vacuum so they advise passengers not to put the tissue in the toilet bowl after use but in the dustbin instead because it will cause a blockage. I’m still trying to figure if they dumped it on the railway once you flush? Who knows?
For the economy, it’s also nice, but I found it to be a bit squeezed and stuffy because there are too many people in one coach. Well, for the cost, which is KES 700, it makes sense. There are 2 rows with 3 seats on each side and the seating arrangement is the “face me” kind with a table separating the two. Can’t remember if there was allowance for luggage above them, I forgot to check. I passed by the economy couches when going to the restaurant, which looks just like in the movies. Benches (for Chairs) facing each other with a table in the middle and a beautiful window view – there’s a couple of them. For a moment there I was about to pretend I’m in the 60’s.
Now, for the food, it’s all for purchase. They don’t give you anything on board whether you’re in first class or economy. So when planning, you either carry your own snacks (which I packed up on our way back, because when going I wasn’t aware), or you ensure that you have some money to buy food. With KES 200, you can at least have a reasonably filling snack. I found this odd, because I would’ve thought your ticket should at the very least get you a free bottle of water and even peanuts. If buses can do it, the train should do it too.
The trip, they say is 5 hours long. It technically is, but with a few minutes on it, say 30 minutes. Well, given the 5 hours, that’s negligible, because it’s comfortable anyway and so an extra 30 minutes is bearable. While on the way you have a clear view of the plains. Like in Tsavo we got to see many herds of Elephants and it was just so beautiful looking at them minding their own business.
For both ways from Nairobi – Mombasa and Mombasa – Nairobi, we had to be out of our homes and hotels respectively by 6:30am for us to be able to make it in time (before 9:00am) for our train ride. The roads that lead to and from the railway station especially from the Mombasa side are in such a bad state, and I hope that they’ve prioritized the projected of building them because it’s such a deal breaker, especially for both local and international tourists. When you arrive there’s ample parking space at the port, and from both ends (Nairobi – Mombasa) there’s a lot of transport options for the passengers with varying budgets. From taxis, buses, tuk tuks, boda bodas, at least you won’t be left stranded wondering how to get to your next destination.
By the way, you barely feel the train moving even though when you look out you can see that it’s gliding over the rails because of how quick the view keeps changing – they say it gets to about 120km/h. With 5 hours in one place, you can do quite a bit. I slept, I woke up, bickered with my seat mates, listened to my music, read a book, enjoyed the view, walked around, ate my snacks, zoned out, slept again – repeat. If you enjoy some alone time and the freedom to do all this without someone staring back at you, I’d recommend you just pay for 1st class.
Overall, the Madaraka Express is a great mode of transport. It is pocket friendly, it is safe and it is comfortable. It will be more convenient when they sort out the teething problems such as ticketing and booking (hopefully have a working booking website or even an app), customer service during booking and enquiries, and especially, the roads leading to the railway station.
If you haven’t taken a ride on the SGR, give it a try sometime. I would definitely do it again!
***PS: This is not a sponsored post. This is me just sharing my first time experience.