6.00 am – an hour to the designated pick up time, I heave a sigh of relief as I spot the very green, very modern shuttles while we approach the Mombasa Railway station. There had been stories of shuttles that would ferry passengers for free, week long after the train service launch. Pick up points would be the old Nairobi and Mombasa Railway stations. Scheduled pick up time – between 7.00 am to 8.00 am so as to allow passengers enough time to purchase their tickets at the Nairobi and Mombasa termini.
I decided to arrive an hour early just in case this shuttle business was just what it was – a story and I found myself having to organize for other means of transport to the Mombasa Terminus. Sure enough, the shuttles were there as promised, courtesy of the National Youth Service (NYS) although I highly doubt there were any shuttles left by 7.00am. I barely managed to catch the first shuttle out; it seems I wasn’t the only eager passenger.
Train travel has always been very alluring. It’s no wonder Kenyans have turned up in their thousands to sample the #MadarakaExpress for themselves since its launching. Took me back to my childhood days when holidaying meant travelling in a train. Had me wondering whether it would still feel the same as it did during the #LunaticExpress days. Sadly the only faint memory I have of the good old days was the splendid yellow long buns served in the train by the pantry boys. Those were some yummy buns.
The commencement of the train service has nonetheless not been without its tiny hitches. Those should be aired out soon enough though as service picks pace. This post however highlights observations, appreciations and tips that should serve to make the experience of other train enthusiasts seamless.
#1 The Madaraka Express Experience is a pretty sweet deal.
As if having cut down travel time by half doesn’t have you sold yet, the fare charges should have you travelling to and from coast over the weekend just coz you can afford to no?! *Although I can bet a mighty dollar that the fee is bound to go up soon enough.
Did I mention breakfast in Mombasa, lunch in Nairobi and vice versa? The train service is moreover going to provide a truly budget alternative to road transport once the sub-stations are fully functional and the trains operational.
#2 The pre-commute commute can be daunting.
Unless you live within the confines of Miritini or Syokimau, commuting to the respective terminus is inevitable. Reduce the amount of time and money spent on your pre-commute by staying within city limits of the termini.
PS. Traffic bound to be experienced to and from departure and arrival points beats the whole “convenience” of train travel time.
#3 No Signage
There is no signage to steer traffic towards the stations along the highway. I hopped into a syokimau matatu trusting that the conductor would be familiar with the terminus only to find myself at the syokimau railway station. Luckily I had enough time to spare so I walked all the way back to the Nairobi Terminus. If you are for that reason not quite familiar with the area keep in mind to be on the lookout for the station from a distance.
#4 African Timing for who?
If there ever was an invention that would help keep Kenyans in toe when it came to time keeping, this would be it. 9 O’clock sharp the train is off. If you are therefore of the African timing philosophy, you will definitely be left behind. Time waits for no man.
#5 Weekends are a rush
If you plan on travelling over the weekends, be sure to book your ticket early enough. There seems to be a plethora of people journeying to and from coast for whatever reason. Ticketing starts at 7.00 am, incase you’d rather still chance it up and book the day of, make it that you arrive early on, ticket queues start budding as early as 5.45am.
#6 Waiting rooms get crowded.
Given the number of passengers, the waiting lounge can get crowded pretty quick. The pros to booking train travel is that you can show up to the station within minutes of your train’s departure time, avoiding any uncomfortable waiting once the lounges are filled to capacity. Plus concern of being the first in line for a seat in the train is a non-issue.
#7 hit the dining car at the start of your adventure.
“The restaurant car is in coach 6. Kindly wait in your seat and someone will come and get your order shortly.”
Unless you can still sit tolerantly 3 hrs into the journey, the above announcement on rotation, with no food or person to get your order in site, darling find your way to coach 6 whilst the queue is still bearable and before all the café tables are taken. Hunger waits for no man. In my opinion, it seems the caterers are yet to adjust to the overwhelming number of mouths to feed in just one trip, so whilst others are still shuffling for their seats, sort yourself as early as possible. Food pricing is also not to everyone’s taste so if you can, carry your own snacks along.
#8 Game Drive, No park fees, Take in the sights.
Road transport robs you of the allure of long distance travel. More often than not, one would need to psyche themselves up for one tedious Nairobi – Mombasa journey. Train travel, however, has this thrill to it. 4 and a ½ hours in but boy does it pack a punch! A perfect blend of town and countryside, travelling through lush lands and savannah landscapes, in between small, quaint towns, through new construction and forgotten dilapidation, experiencing both rural and urban at one go, simply magical.
Did I say magical, how about a journey through Tsavo East and West National parks, Elephants and numerous other wildlife put in impressive appearances on your train safari. There goes that word again, magical! Perhaps the highlight of the Madaraka Express experience would be at Mtito Andei when the two trains – from Mombasa and Nairobi respectively – intersect and you get to witness just exactly how fast your own train is traversing because honestly when inside the train you barely notice that the train is moving fast paced if at all.
#9 There is Room to Roam
The Madaraka Express train doesn’t cramp your style. You are more than free to walk around and explore other parts of the train as opposed to being confined to an uncomfortable seat your entire trip. Heck, you can even change seats if you want to (although as I came to realize not everyone can be as kind-hearted).
#10 Ready to mingle?
Is it that hard to spark conversations while travelling by bus or is there just something in the train’s air? Perhaps it’s the natural proclivity to converse provided for by the seating arrangement or maybe it’s the pure fascination of the rail travel revolution that has everyone talking. Either way, Madaraka Express not only offers you the comfort of a good face to face conversation, it also guarantees you a new friend or two at the end of the journey.
There’s no denying that across stations, help desks, ticketing booths, uniforms, promotional material, security and overall train service, customers get a good feel of the value-focused attitude of the SGR brand. Unlike the Lunatic “Express“which travelled at a lazy-man’s jog with frequent breakdowns, the Madaraka train service gives a whole new meaning to express. SGR offers an irresistible sense of discovery, of adventure and finer aspects of travel and thrill that long-distance buses and even budget airlines cannot afford you.
Your first #MadarakaExpress Experience is guaranteed to be a memorable one but generally the notion is that you’re responsible for your own experience.