Last year, President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the standard gauge railway commuter train to Ongata Rongai and Ngong with much fanfare.
This train was to offer an alternative for residents of the populous towns that have been plagued with intense vehicular road traffic.
To test the journey, my two colleagues and I joined the five o’clock rush, walking from Nation Centre to the railway station in time to catch the 5.30pm train to the Nairobi terminus in Syokimau.
The train is the most predictable means of transport to the terminus where we boarded the 6.50pm train to Ongata Rongai. There was also the option of taking a matatu only a short distance from the station.
At the station, we paid Sh50 each and hopped on board the commuter train. Two minutes into the ride, the train came to a halt… perhaps an obstruction on the tracks — which was not an unusual. The security guard in the carriage unlocked the door, stepped out for a minute or two, then got back in, locked the door, and we were on our way again. No word on why we had stopped.
As we passed through the settlements along the railway, we could see the sides of tracks filled with garbage. As the wheels of the commuter train rolled, the coaches swayed dangerously.
At the Makadara stop, the guards disembarked with the passengers and shut all the windows in the carriages. This, I later came to learn, was to keep out the projectiles that are at times hurled at the train as it passes through settlements.
We got to the Syokimau terminus in 45 minutes. Yes, it takes 45 minutes in the swaying coach that constantly feels like it may tip over. Unsure that the terminus is our stop (there are no announcements at each stop) we ask the security guard in our carriage.
The SGR terminus experience is similar to that of the train to Mombasa, which comprises two security checks including a body pat down and luggage X-ray, just to be sure no one is carrying dangerous weapons.
We joined the short queue of about a dozen people and paid Sh100 each for a ticket to Ongata Rongai, bringing the total spend thus far to Sh150 per person.
As we crossed the terminus to the train, we were treated to the perfect image as the sun descended into the horizon. The train promptly left the station at 6.50pm. The journey was quick, smooth and picturesque with none of the swaying or incidents of the commuter train. As we approached the Ongata Rongai station at 7.15pm, a stewardess notified us we were arriving and directed us to the door we were to exit from.
As we made our way out, a passenger told us he had been using the train since it was commissioned. For him, working along Mombasa Road, it was quicker and simpler than going to the city centre to catch a matatu.
Our tickets were the key to the security doors at the well-guarded, well-lit terminus. However, the security assurance quickly varnished once we leave through the open gates.
The darkness was a stark contrast to the well-lit station. Boda boda operators have noticed the disconnect and are now making roaring business, so to speak, offering rides at between Sh100 to Sh200, depending on how far one needs to go from the station. There are a few homes around the station but the area is still sparsely populated.
To get to the main road (Magadi Road) on the two-wheelers, one pays at least Sh150, bringing the fare to Sh300 for the trip.
Being adventurous, we decided to walk to the main highway. The route was dark and every few hundred metres we came across a house that provided lighting for a short distance before we were enveloped by the darkness once again. This trek should not be made alone due to security concerns, and on occasion, the sighting of wild animals from the nearby park.
It takes quite some time to cover the more than three kilometres to Magadi Road on a rocky track with only a stretch of about 800 metres having street lighting.
The entire journey from the city takes two and a half hours, which could be shortened by half an hour if one takes a motorcycle on the bumpy road. But this would double the cost of the journey from Sh150 to Sh300.
Comparatively, on a similar day, getting to the bus stop at a similar time, this time taking a matatu, it takes between two and two and a half hours to get to the main bus station in Ongata Rongai and depending on the vehicle it will cost between Sh100 and Sh150.
To test the experience from the Ngong Terminus, my colleague targeted the 5.50am train, which arrives at the Nairobi station at 6.28am. He opted to walk the 3.5-kilometre stretch rather than take a Sh300 taxi or Sh100 boda boda. At that hour, the road is dark and lonely. There is no security lighting.
Arriving late, he missed the Syokimau connecting train by two minutes, which meant he had to walk back to the bus stop and pay Sh80 in a matatu to the city centre. This is much cheaper than the Sh150 to Sh450 he would need to take the train.
From both experiences, the train from the Nairobi terminus to either Ngong or Ongata Rongai takes a short time. However, the poor connection to the terminus and the city centre makes nonsense of the time saved.
The cost of using the same train with all the connections is double or triple that of using a matatu due to the lack of supporting infrastructure around the station.
In bad weather, the route my colleagues and I took from the SGR station to Magadi Road is usually impassable, meaning that one has to take a longer route or board a taxi.