WHERE THERE IS LIGHT THERE ARE STILL SHADOWS
(Posted 09th October 2017)
It took a few months since the launch of the so called Madaraka Express in June before opportunity came knocking to try out the new train and provide my readers with a narrative of my experience.
The headline is already indicating that there was both light and shadow and both, especially the logistical challenges to get a ticket and get on the train need as much mention as does the journey itself.
I attended the Magical Kenya Travel Expo in Nairobi and had planned to head to Mombasa afterwards – on my own account I hasten to add – and my choice mode of transport was the SGR train though flying is always an option and, at least out of Wilson Airport, the faster one still.
The moment I was back in Nairobi from my pre-MKTE tour to Amboseli I tried to get myself a ticket and asked both Kenya Tourism Board staff and the concierge / Brand Ambassadors at the Stanley Hotel where I was staying to assist me.
My preferred travel date was Friday the 06th of October and attempts to book my First Class seat started on Tuesday morning, 03rd of October, i.e. three clear days ahead of the date of travel.
Reports in the evening of the 03rd, from both parties, was that they had been unable to get through to the booking office by phone but would continue to try the following day. Wednesday came and almost passed without success as attempts to book tickets online were intermediately showing the train fully booked and yet in between showing seats available. The nearest sensible option, the Nairobi Railway Station, owned and operated by Kenya Railways, was of no use as, unbelievably they do not sell tickets for the SGR train.
The company, in this day and age, well and truly expects travelers to go all the way to their station which is beyond the airport, opposite the upcoming Hilton Garden Inn to be precise, to purchase a ticket in cash. Online payment, again in this day and age, with credit or debit cards is not provided for, though holders of an M-Pesa account can now finally pay with e-money – but then, who of those not resident in Kenya does have that facility?
Long story cut short, the traffic jams along the highway to the airport were such that a three plus hour journey was on the cards, leading to my decision to return to the Convention Centre and opting to fly.
Just as my KTB minder, the ever dependable Erick Omenda, and I walked back into the expo hall, making our way to Skyward – they had offered me a great deal to fly with them from Wilson to Mombasa – talking about a missed opportunity for Kenya Railways – did what turned out to be a staff from African Horizons by the name of Emily Kaloki, also walking in the same direction, get involved, asking permission to talk to us.
She had overheard our talk and claimed she could accomplish what everyone else had failed to do, get me a ticket on the SGR train on Friday morning.
WOW I thought, abandoning the idea to sort out my air ticket and accepting her assurance that she would indeed get me booked.
Three Thousand Shillings changed hands after the expo had closed its doors for the day and my hope to finally travel on the new train service had been revived.
Emily did deliver the tickets, emphasis on plural, at the end of MKTE, the evening before my intended travel and I was well and truly set for that historic experience.
The first of the two tickets was from Nairobi to Mtito Andei and the second one then from Mtito Andei, the halfway point, to Mombasa but, did Emily tell me, I would not need to leave the train but could stay on board and continue the journey as if ticketed on a single one way billet.
Aha I thought, there is a young Kenyan entrepreneur who found her way around the bureaucrazy – pun intended – and managed to get people on the train. She, hailing herself from Voi, let me in on her secret having travelled multiple times to her home town, one of the stops of the train.
All set I profusely thanked her, we parted company but I told her I would keep her posted on my journey. A last word of advice from her was ‘LEAVE THE HOTEL EARLY‘ and I hence I asked for my transfer from the Stanley to pick me up not long after 06.15 hrs for a train departure at 09.00 hrs.
It would have been wise of me to ask the driver if he knew where the station was located because apparently he did not and only when I asked him if he was trying to take me to the Athi River station did he stop at the roadside and made enquiries.
A first attempt to get into the railway station then failed as it turned out to be a building serving another purpose before finally, in thickening traffic, he managed to deliver me at a quarter past seven.
First I noticed the total absence of baggage trolleys, leaving passengers to lug their own bags, a challenge in particular for people with one or another level of physical challenges, leave alone disabilities. And before someone asks, NO, there were no porters either, tongue in cheek making me say those are jobs which people are denied.
Was there a separate processing queue for First Class passenger? Of course not it turned out, as all travelers were by stern looking and stern acting security officials instructed to line up in what looked like groups of twenty at a go, put our luggage flat on the floor and then stand back three metres – and given their reactions not one foot less.
Sniffer dogs went along the bags and I began to imagine how that was working when it rained … very messy no doubt and showing how woefully inadequate the preparations for passenger screening and processing still are to this day.
No cover, no protection from both rain and shine, that must change and on the fast track! Next came what turned out to be the first of two bag and body scanning points, the first under a small tent providing just enough protection for the equipment not to short circuit when it rains and a second such check point not a hundred metres on inside the terminal. At both checkpoints did I have to open a piece of baggage, and not the same I hasten to add, which of course yielded nothing posing any threat.
I half expected another checkpoint somewhere but thankfully, that was it and the escalators took me upstairs into the departure lounge.
There a First Class section had been roped off, at least one little benefit for the more than three times higher fare compared to Second Class, and later it transpired we were allowed to board first. BUT, separate processing lines, similar to priority boarding offered by airlines to their premium passengers, would be a customer friendly move given the fare difference.
(First class waiting section)
Absent from the waiting lounges were by the way any facilities for tea, coffee or snacks and while this may come sooner or later, it again shows that the rush to get the trains going resulted in supporting facilities and logistics falling to the wayside. Hence, my advice until this has been remedied, bring your own provisions, drinks and snacks as all the zigzagging through the various security checkpoints does make hungry and thirsty.
Finally, at 20 to nine, were First Class passengers allowed to board, ahead of the Second Class passengers, a small mercy given the huge number of travelers crowded into the departure level of the terminal.
(A First Class ticket costs 3.000 Kenya Shillings or about 30 US Dollars while a
Second Class ticket costs a mere 700 Kenya Shillings at present, about 7 US Dollars
for the journey to Mombasa, a lot less than even busses charge)
(Best not to step into the gap … )
(First class boarding was VERY orderly, probably due to the lower numbers
and every carriage had its own attendant – there were a total of 27 on board
(Boarding the First Class carriage where seats are 2×2 abreast while in Second Class
the seating is 2×3. The display shows date, time and when the train is underway it even
shows the speed)
Once on board were the challenges of getting there put aside, no
point harbouring sentiments over things one cannot change, though
a sour taste of course remained in my mouth over the hurdles one
has to overcome to get a ticket and then run the gauntlet of at times
very zealous security personnel to get to the departure lounge.
Finally, when everyone was seated – all the seats in my carriage were taken up – did the train begin to move, at nine o’clock sharp and not one second delay. THAT surely is novel for train journeys in Kenya, and not only here, as my own experience with the Deutsche Bahn over the past years went to show – they could take a leaf from the punctuality of this service!
As the train began to move did initially only a look out of the window confirm we were actually underway, so smooth was the start.
The train I traveled with made two stops enroute, at the halfway point in Mtito Andei where quite a number of tourists got off to join their waiting safari drivers for a tour into the Tsavo West National Park, and then again in Voi, where similarly tourists alighted to start their safari to the Taita Hills Game Sanctuary and Tsavo East.
As of Mtito Andei seats on the train were available and even more from Voi, as few passengers boarded at these two stations.
I managed to see a few animals but as the midday heat rose – the display at one time showed 34C outside – was the game hiding away. The landscapes though, seeing the distant Yatta Plateau and then of course the Chyulu Hills and other features along the way, the Tsavo River, glimpses of the old railroad known as the Iron Snake or the Lunatic Express – passenger trains used to take 14 hours or more on this route – did the smooth journey also add travel experiences vis a vis the sights one can take in, seated comfortably and thanks to a working air condition system, in a cool and pleasant environment.
And time did fly as our SGR Madaraka Express train rolled into Mombasa at two a clock sharp, five hours after leaving Nairobi.
(When reaching Mombasa was the orderly parking arrangements impressive, making it easy to find name boards held up by drivers who come to pick up travelers and take them to the hotels and resorts)
That journey is longer than a flight from either Wilson or JKIA but a lot faster than going by bus, and, for second class passengers, a lot cheaper too, which would explain the phenomenal success of the train which over the past few months saw passenger numbers steadily rise towards the 100.000 mark. The first class fare of 3.000 Kenya Shillings compares favourably with airfares charged by low cost carriers which ordinarily set one back about 4.500 Kenya Shillings, so at least a trip one way or the other may widen the journey experience.
If only KRC and SGR could finally roll out an online booking system and provide the logistics to protect passengers from the elements while being subjected to security checks and have a few snack bars in the terminals, it would make the journey experience a lot better and probably draw in the added numbers needed to commence operation of a second daily train, at last initially on days demand exceeds available seats on the 09.00 hrs departure.
In balance, it was an experience absolutely worth it and as said, when finally in the waiting area and then on the train, there were no complaints whatsoever.
Still, the challenges needed mentioning and pointing out, in a constructive rather than acidic critical way, hoping it will make things better and soon.
Overall there was a lot more light than shadows but those dark spots which I found need to be dealt with, in fact should have been dealt with had proper planning extended to those areas beyond the mere running of the trains.
One last issue though I just have to raise.
Kenyan are known in the region and beyond to be highly skilled workers,
keen and ready to train more to advance and yet did I only find Kenyans as train attendants while all ‘higher functions‘ appear to be carried out by Chinese staff.
Here I ask what skill transfer programmes have been instituted, what time frames have been set to phase Kenyans into jobs presently performed by Chinese. Ownership of the Madaraka Express must go all the way because surely a Kenyan, capable of speaking not just fluent English but also Kiswahili and other vernacular languages, will make him or her better understand to travelers than a Chinese worker using a bullhorn for instructions before boarding opens.
Will I do a train trip again? Absolutely! I will then be better prepared, better informed and hopefully find the new logistics in place!